The first large scale study on sugar-sweetened beverages has just reported, and the results are clear. These drinks shrink our lifespan. The more we consume, the shorter our lives will be.
The effect on longevity is just the latest in a long string of negative findings on sugar. Official recommendations to reduce sugar consumption go back to 1977.
In 2000 this was stepped up with the new edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. That’s when the government publication started giving specific advice to reduce the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).
Since then there has been some decline in the amount the average American drinks, but intake is still at alarmingly high levels. Of course, most of those drinks are sodas (or “soda pop” if you grew up in the Midwest like me.)
Not to beat around the bush: These drinks are deadly. Nobody should drink them. Ever.
Do I follow my own advice? I have a Coke maybe once a year. There’s a ton of evidence to scare me off these drinks. Let’s take a look at some of it…
Health Advice That’s on the Money
If you’re fed up with health authorities preaching to us about what we should eat, you’re in good company. Their advice is often dubious and changes over time. Eggs were bad, then they were good, now we aren’t sure. Eat pasta, never eat past. Eat tons of meat, never touch meat.
It’s a roller-coaster, but I can tell you this: There’s one immutable fact, and that is that large amounts of sugar are bad for you.
The evidence for the negative effects of sugar, particularly SSBs — which supply the single largest source of added sugar in the US diet — is consistent and reliable.
SSBs provide rapidly absorbed simple carbohydrates. These play havoc with blood sugar, add a great deal of unneeded calories, and contain no essential nutrients. Population studies have linked them to obesity, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.
To test whether sugary drinks also shorten life, researchers from Harvard used data from 118,363 male and female health professionals. Each filled out detailed diet questionnaires every two years for 30 years.
SSBs were defined in the study as caffeinated and non-caffeine colas and other carbonated and non-carbonated beverages (fruit punches, lemonades, or other fruit drinks.)
Here I’ll give a dishonorable mention to Hawaiian Punch, an execrable brand I used to drink by the quart when I was a child. “Killing people since 1934” should be the motto. I also drank soda pop almost daily – my parents were definitely not alternative health types.
Because consumers of SSBs are more likely to be younger, smoke, exercise less, eat fewer vegetables etc., the researchers took these factors, each participant’s medical history, and many other variables into account to make sure their findings were as robust as possible.
Biggest Threat is to The Heart
Over the three decades of the study there were 36,436 deaths. After adjusting for all these factors, the researchers found the more SSBs a person drank, the greater the risk of early death from any cause.
This “all-cause mortality” stat is commonly used to measure the effect of some input, such as drinking alcohol, on overall risk of death. Weirdly, some inputs may reduce risk of death in one way but increase it in another. For instance, smoking helps people keep their weight down.
Compared to subjects who drank SSBs less than once a month, drinking one to four per month increased the risk of death by one percent. Two to six sugary drinks per week increased it by six percent. One or two per day ramped it up by 14%.
And those who consumed two or more every day boosted the risk of an early grave by 21%.
The association was especially strong for cardiovascular disease. In comparison to those who drank the least “sugar water,” the highest consumers had a 31% increased risk of dying before their time. Their risk of cancer was 16% higher, the strongest relationship being for breast cancer.
Commenting on their findings, study leader and nutrition research scientist Dr. Vasanti Malik said, “Drinking water in place of sugary drinks is a healthy choice that could contribute to longevity.”
Another member of the team, Dr. Walter Willet, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, added, “These findings are consistent with the known adverse effects of high sugar intake on metabolic risk factors, and the strong evidence that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, itself a major risk factor for premature death.”
And a quick P.S.: You don’t protect yourself by drinking diet sodas. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame are just as bad as sugar, or worse.