Sugary Drinks Also Responsible for Health Problems
> 3/28/2007 9:18:18 AM

Due to constant news coverage and advertising campaigns, most Americans have some idea that they should aim for healthier diets, but just as many have no real idea about the content of the foods they are eating or, according to recent studies, what they are drinking.A focus on high-calorie, high carbohydrate foods as the culprits behind America's obesity problem has largely ignored the heavy influence of sugary beverages, according to a new guide published by a group of experts financed by the Unilever Health Institute (owner of Lipton teas).

While the Western world's eating habits are hardly exemplary, researchers estimate that more than 20% of our caloric intake comes from what we drink. It's not a myth that, over the past few decades, the popularity of these drinks has grown just as quickly as their often ridiculous serving sizes. Studies reveal a possible reason for the fact that people continue to eat and drink badly even when provided with the relevant knowledge: repeated exposure to high-fat, high-calorie foods and drinks can desensitize the brain to appetite-suppressant hormones, rendering the body unaware of the amounts it is consuming. Hopefully this guide will allow people to better understand that even improved diets do not allow for the regular consumption of these unhealthy fluids.

People often do not realize that such drinks can very quickly lead to weight gain, stuffing the system with sugar while failing to curb the appetite. The negative effects of carbonated sodas on the stomach, the teeth and gums, and the waistline are fairly common knowledge, but the report also singles out fortified fruit juices, designer waters, and many fruit smoothies, which are popular because of their convenience and slightly misleading dietary claims but do not offer the same level of nutritional benefits as eating whole fruit. Bowing under the pressure of dietary organizations and public opinion, soft drink manufacturers have taken steps to at least appear concerned about public health, offering vitamin-fortified versions of their most popular drinks (many actually drink these with breakfast). But these efforts are laughably transparent and will almost certainly fail to convince skeptics and health professionals.

So which beverages should consumers favor? Plain water, unsweetened coffees and teas, skim milk, and alcohol (in moderation, of course). Experts warn of exotic "designer" waters, which often contain artificial sweeteners or vitamins (which can be less than healthy). They also do not recommend more than 400 mg of caffeine a day but note that coffee, especially without excessive sugar, has been known to reduce the risk of diabetes, and black teas can improve circulation, though common sweet teas are usually loaded with sugar and have acidic properties that can damage the teeth. The health benefits of consuming one or two servings of alcohol each day have been well documented, even if some find them hard to believe. And if one enjoys soft drinks, the panel recommends diet drinks with artificial sweeteners, though these will certainly condition the body to crave the same. Over-reliance on dairy products, especially those containing whole milks that are high in saturated fat, can lead to weight gain, but the nutrients in milk are essential to bone density, containing large quantities of calcium and other nutrients. Soy milk makes for an acceptable alternative but does not contain the same quantities of these dietary standards.

Many of the panel's conclusions would seem to be common sense, but our addiction to sweet drinks shows no signs of abating (for evidence, consider the array of ridiculous beverages offered at many chain coffee shops or the fact that one in two citizens consumes at least one soft drink each day). While some may disagree with their rankings and recommendations, calling them confusing and unrealistic, any efforts to get the message out are good. The public should be trusted to make their own dietary decisions, but we need to have a reference point in order to sort through the many conflicting messages offered by the food industry. If this guide does not ultimately help mediate the problem, we should continue to try and make it easier for the average consumer to eat well based on tested nutritional facts. 

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