While a major study relating soda and obesity was done in California, the hypothesis, observations and outcomes are applicable to all the states of the Union. More than half the adolescents in that state and almost a fourth of the adults treat themselves to at least one sweetened beverage every day. One of the concerns expressed by UCLA researchers is that the serving size has grown from an average of 6.5 ounces and eighty-eight calories in the 1950’s to 20 ounces and two hundred sixty-six calories by the 2000’s. In fast food restaurants in 2003, the average serving was 23 ounces (almost 300 calories). These added caloric sweeteners, including high fructose corn syrup, are not only markers of a poor diet, but also are associated with overweight and obesity in all age groups.
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The UCLA Health Policy Research Brief from September, 2009, reports from its data that, “Adults who drink soda occasionally (not every day) are 15% more likely to be overweight or obese, and adults who drink one or more sodas per day are 27% more likely to be overweight or obese than adults who do not drink soda, even when adjusting for poverty status and race/ethnicity.” Even though the prevalence of overweight in children is lower than in adults, the rates among children have increased more. In fact, overweight has tripled in teenagers and quadrupled in those from six to eleven years old in the last three decades. In California the cost of obesity approaches twenty-one billion dollars a year, burdening families, employers and the health care industry. The study comments that, “California spends more public and private money on the health consequences of obesity than any other state.” To compound the matter, the article admits that “…drinking soda is also associated with increased risk for type 2 diabetes.”
One third of American adults are obese. Their health care costs $1500 more a year than it does for an average-weight person. The Center for Disease Control announced in July, 2011, that obesity in the entire United States costs $147 billion a year in direct medical costs. Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the CDC, said the problem is “getting worse rapidly. The average American is now 23 pounds overweight.” For Medicare, the cost of obesity is 72% greater just for prescription drugs. The CDC says that one in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes. How did we get there? Diet. Does the rest of the world share the problem? Yes. Where does the blame go? White flour, white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, soft drinks and fast food.
Whether it gets marketed as corn sugar or as high fructose corn syrup, which is what it is, this commodity is not equal to other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain. HFCS costs less than table sugar because, being liquid, it’s easier to transport and blend. It’s sweeter than sucrose (table sugar), so less is needed, and it’s cheaper because of a combination of corn subsidies and sugar tariffs and quotas. Cheap corn, in fact, is the building block of the fast-food nation. Cheap corn created the chubby 20-ounce bottle of soda we have today.
High fructose corn syrup commonly is 55% fructose and 45% glucose, somewhat different from the 50-50 mix in table sugar, where one fructose molecule is attached to one glucose molecule. Some HFCS may be as high as 80% fructose. Since all sugars contain four calories per gram, there must be something else about fructose that matters. Fructose is metabolized more rapidly that glucose, flooding metabolic pathways and increasing triglyceride storage. It doesn’t spur the production of insulin or leptin, the hormone that sequesters appetite. The body then lacks satiety. This elevates serum triglycerides and increases fat storage. Since it may have less impact on appetite than glucose, fructose contributes to weight gain. Ingesting lots of fructose may also reduce insulin sensitivity. (Beck-Nielsen, 1980)
Soft drink consumption has more than doubled in the twenty years from 1977 to 1997. Not surprisingly, obesity followed the same trend. Cause and effect? It’s been estimated that for each additional sweet drink consumed per day, the odds of obesity increase by sixty percent. A study of more than fifty thousand nurses by Harvard compared time periods from 1991-1995 and 1995-1999, and found that women whose soda consumption increased had bigger rises in body-mass index than those who drank less or the same amounts of soda. Fast food seems to go well with it. Unhealthy foods get along nicely with each other.
The debate between the soft drink industry and the health nuts is ongoing. People who consume lots of fresh-squeezed juices, vegetables and fruits are not the same group that consumes soda and cold cut sandwiches. The daily calories from soft drinks account for almost a fourth of the recommended daily intake for many Americans, who drink almost fifty-six gallons of soda a year.
In case you’re interested, more than 30% of Americans are obese. More than 24% of Mexicans, 23% of British, 22% of Slovakians, 22% of Greeks and Australians, 21% of New Zealanders, and 15% of Czechs, but only 3% of Japanese and Koreans. Go figure. Obesity, by the way, means being more than 20% above ideal weight for height.