Carbonated beverages have been around for centuries. In fact, the first soda water was invented by an English clergyman named Joseph Priestly. He created the process of adding carbon dioxide to water in 1767. Soda water is of course the foundation for all soft drinks today. Flavors weren’t added to soda water until the 19th century when people began adding birch bark and fruit flavors.
Pharmacists added herbs and other ingredients and billed the carbonated water as healthy. There are many myths and rumors about the impact of soda and carbonated beverages on health. Sometimes these rumors appear to be good. Most times, however, they’re not.
Let’s take a look at the myths and facts surrounding soft drinks, diet soft drinks and other carbonated beverages. It just may change the way you look at soda and what you put into your body. We’ll wrap it up with a few tips to quit the habit and replace carbonated drinks with beverages that are actually good for you.
The Health Effects of Soda and Soft Drinks
Soft drinks contain a handful of ingredients. Among these ingredients you’ll find artificial coloring, artificial flavoring, water, sugar and caffeine.
Weight Gain, Metabolic Syndrome, and Type 2 Diabetes
While America’s consumption of soda seems to be decreasing, between 1977 and 2002 it doubled and along with it doubled the obesity rate. True, this is a correlation and soda may not necessarily be the cause of the obesity epidemic, but it certainly makes you pay attention to the possibility.
One soda a day adds about 150 calories to your daily diet. That’s 54750 calories annually which adds up to a whopping 15.64 pounds. Think about how quickly the weight can add on if you have more than an average of one soda a day.
Couple the weight gain with the fact that the sugar in soda causes a spike in blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels spike, your body receives a signal from your pancreas to release insulin and stimulate your cells to take in glucose. Your cells take it in and then you have a dramatic drop in energy and blood sugar levels. So you crave something sugary, something that your body can break down quickly to provide you with a fast energy source.
You eat something sweet or starchy like potato chips and the process repeats itself. If you’re not burning the sugars as fast as your cells are taking them in, they start to ignore the signals from your pancreas. You start to become insulin resistant. Your body instead, stores the sugar as fat and you develop diabetes.
The good news about this process is that it’s reversible. Stop consuming sugary sodas and starchy treats and eat whole foods instead, and your body begins to respond. Your blood sugar levels even out, your cells take up the energy they’re supposed to and you feel better and lose weight.
Keep in mind that the FDA recommends no more than 10 teaspoons of sugar each day. One can of soda contains all the sugar you should have in a day. If you eat anything else with sugar in a day where you drink a soda, you’re going over the recommended daily allowance and let’s be clear that there is added sugar in everything from soup to ketchup to things that are supposed to be healthy for you like yogurt and milk.
In a single day without drinking a soda, most Americans exceed this RDA. And sugar has been linked to a number of diseases beyond Type 2 Diabetes including cancer, heart disease, mental decline and more.
You’ll hear some people say that a calorie is a calorie and that your body needs sugar. Your body does need sugar but here’s the thing, it breaks down everything you eat into simple sugars. Consuming processed sugar in the place of fruits or vegetables isn’t the same. Some calories are better for you than others.
What About Bone Density?
The second biggest risk to drinking soda is the risk of losing bone density. In fact, there’s a very strong correlation between soda drinkers and the risk of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a disease that affects both men and women, though due to testosterone’s impact on bone development it affects men less than women. Osteoporosis is a disease that leads to significant bone loss and fragile bones. The spine and hips appear to be particularly fragile which can cause debilitating breaks.
Why does soda cause bone loss? The answer isn’t particularly clear. It used to be believed that the carbonation somehow depleted the bone tissue. However, studies with carbonated water haven’t shown bone loss. It’s when men and women drink soft drinks like coke and Pepsi that they experience significant bone loss.
The average woman after the age of about 40 loses between two and five percent of their bone density each year. Drink soda and you add another four percent onto that number which means that women can lose up to nine percent of their bone density each year. It’s a fast track to a wheelchair and fractures of the hip and spine and can be deadly.
Doctors and scientists aren’t exactly sure why bone loss occurs with soda. There are a few theories. They believe that people who drink soda are replacing other healthy beverages with soft drinks so instead of drinking milk, which has calcium and vitamin D – both bone building nutrients, they drink a soda.
Caffeine seems to play a role in bone depletion as does phosphorus which is found in many sodas. Both caffeinated and non-caffeinated beverages do cause bone loss but the ones with caffeine seem to cause more damage.
Tooth Decay, Kidney Stones, Benzene Poisoning and More
There is also significant research to connect drinking sugary sodas with tooth decay. Not only is soda acidic which strips the enamel from the teeth, the sugar from a soda hangs out in your mouth and attracts bacteria and decay. People who drink soda have a higher incidence of cavities.
In 2013 the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology conducted a study that concluded that consumption of soft drinks was associated with a 23% higher risk of developing kidney stones. Kidney stones are more than a painful occurrence that requires surgery. They can cause chronic bladder infections.
When the FDA took samples of 26 sodas they found that the majority of them contained benzene levels that were higher than what the FDA recommends. Benzene is a known carcinogen, it causes cancer. Despite the high levels, the FDA deemed the soft drinks to be safe. (Source: http://web.archive.org/web/20080223130439/http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/benzqa.html)
Finally, drinking soda may cause stroke which can lead to dementia. As you may be aware, the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s are at an all-time high which may correlate with the dramatic increase of soda drinking prior to 2002. It’s also worth noting that dementia rates seem to be declining and that also correlates with a reduction in the consumption of sugary drinks.
What about Diet Soda?
Occasionally, you hear that it’s healthier to drink diet soda than to drink regular soda. That’s debatable. There are so many added chemicals in diet soda that you may be doing more harm than good. So let’s take a look at why diet soda may be so bad for you.
According to a decade long study at Harvard Medical School, diet soda causes kidney decline. They studied more than 3000 women and found that women that drank two or more sodas a day had double the risk of kidney decline. They also studied women who drank sugary sodas and while sugary sodas can cause kidney stones, they don’t have the same detrimental impact on the kidneys themselves. Scientists suspect it’s the artificial sweeteners that damage the kidney tissue.
Studies go back and forth on whether diet soda helps weight loss or causes weight gain. It has been shown to increase a craving for sweets and sugary snacks like potato chips, cookies, candy and crackers. These are high in sugar and can cause weight gain. Additionally, diet soda has been linked to metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome is the name given for a group of risk factors that occur together and increase the risk for coronary artery disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Scientists aren’t sure if diet soda alone is to blame for the increased risk or if it’s the lifestyle habits of people who drink diet soda that is to blame. Most people would likely agree that diet soda doesn’t taste good enough to be worth the risk of developing heart disease, having a stroke, or getting type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, according to studies at Purdue University and the University of Texas, the artificial sweeteners found in diet soda disrupt your body’s ability to regulate calorie intake. You eat more when you drink diet soda.
Finally, diet soda has more benzene in it than sugary sodas. We’ve already talked about this carcinogen and the damage it can cause to your cells.
What About Other Carbonated Beverages?
Today you can find carbonated juices and fruit flavored drinks. You can also find an abundance of carbonated water including some that are flavored. Carbonation alone hasn’t been shown to cause bone density loss.
Unflavored and unsweetened carbonated water appears to be a relatively healthy drink. Any carbonated water that has added flavors or sweeteners can be classified as a soda or soft drink and those risks and health problems have been discussed.
There are Some Risks to Drinking Sparkling Water
While sparkling water alone seems to be healthy and safe for most, it can cause problems for some. The biggest problem that some people may experience is digestive upset. We’re not talking about the gas that can be caused from drinking carbonated beverages.
Some people who are sensitive to foods and digestive upset can experience stomach upset from plain old sparkling water. The mineral content can also cause stomach upset and bloating if you drink carbonated mineral water.
How to Conquer Your Soda Habit
For millions of Americans, drinking soda and carbonated beverages is a way of life. A Coke in the morning is often a substitute for someone who doesn’t like coffee. A diet coke goes naturally with your afternoon lunch. And let’s not forget that if you don’t drink alcohol there’s not much to drink when you go to a restaurant.
The truth is that most people believe that they don’t like water. What actually happens is that your taste buds become sensitized to sugar. Humans love sugar. It’s in our DNA to prefer sweet because glucose is our primary source of fuel.
Changing your soda habit can be tricky. There are a few different approaches you can consider taking. The first is to wean yourself from soda.
A Gradual Approach to Quitting Soda
How much soda do you consume on a daily basis? One, two, five? Keep track of the soda that you drink daily and set a goal to quit. Let’s look at an example of someone who drinks three sodas a day.
Week One: Cut back by one soda. If you normally drink three sodas each day, cut back to two sodas this week. Replace one soda with carbonated, unflavored and unsweetened, water or plain water, unsweetened coffee or unsweetened tea. Do not replace the soda with a different diet or sweetened beverage. The goal is to get your taste buds to welcome water.
Week Two: Cut back by another soda. This week you’re only drinking one soda a day. You may feel a bit of withdrawal as your body adapts to less sugar and caffeine. Again, replace the soda with an unsweetened and unflavored beverage. Coffee or tea may help with the caffeine withdrawal.
Week Three: Yep, cut back again. If the prior two weeks have been a struggle, you can cut back to a half soda a day. This means six ounces each day. Or you can eliminate soda all together. Make sure that you’re drinking enough water, carbonated or plain.
Week Four and On: No more soda. Once you eliminate soda from your life, when you taste it again it will taste strange to you. Keep in mind that the occasional soda as a treat is okay as long as it doesn’t happen very often.
Quitting Cold Turkey
Another option is to quit drinking soda all together starting today. No more soda sweetened or diet. This will undoubtedly cause you a few days of headaches and lethargy. If soda has been a part of your daily life for some time, then you’ll experience a bit of withdrawal.
Caffeine withdrawal can be managed with coffee. Sugar withdrawal may cause you to crave other sweets. Don’t give into it. It will pass and you’ll come out the other side much healthier. You’ll have more energy and you’ll experience the satisfaction of cutting your dependence on sugar.
If the bubbles and carbonation are difficult to get over, sparkling water is a great substitute for soda. You can get the satisfaction of opening a can or a bottle, hearing the fizz, and feeling the bubbles in your throat. It’s an effective way for some people to manage the loss of soda as part of their eating and drinking experience.
The Bottom Line
Drinking carbonated beverages that are sweetened or flavored with artificial flavorings and sweeteners is bad for your long term health. Both diet and sugary sodas cause weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and can lead to cancer, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and more.
When there are so many other things you can drink, it just makes sense to cut soda and sugary drinks out of your life. Your health and well-being are too important.