MONEY Food & Drink

How Coke Convinced Us to Pay More … for Less Soda

A 7.5-ounce can of Coca-cola, right, is posed next to a 12-ounce can for comparison.
A 7.5-ounce can of Coca-Cola, right, is posed next to its big brother, the traditional 12-ouncer. Matt Rourke—AP

Talk about a brilliant sales concept!

Soda sales may be in a slump, but one sliver of the soft drink market—the segment that comes in smaller than usual sizes, including those adorably tiny 7.5-ounce cans—is booming. What’s especially curious about the trend is that sales have been taking off even though the smaller packages offer far worse value to consumers.

This week, the Associated Press explored this odd scenario, in which consumers are clamoring to buy Coke, Pepsi, and other sodas in unconventionally smaller sized packaging, notably the 7.5-ounce mini can that’s generally sold in eight-packs in stores.

Previously, the Wall Street Journal reported that sales of smaller Coca-Cola packages—including the mini cans, as well as 8-ounce glass bottles and 1.25-liter plastic bottles—were up 9% through the first 10 months of 2014. During the same time period, sales of regular old 12-ounce cans and 2-liter bottles were as flat as a bottle of week-old Coke.

Beyond their nontraditional size, what all of the smaller soda items have in common is that they’re “premium-priced packages.” Yes, the value proposition in the trendy category is that you not only get less product, but you get to pay more for the privilege. Coca-Cola estimates that consumers typically pay 31¢ for each traditional 12-ounce Coke purchased in a 12- or 24-pack at the supermarket. By contrast, the average price per 7.5-ounce mini can breaks down to 40¢ a pop.

And remember, you’re getting a lot less soda in the smaller cans. Tally up all of the soda in one of these eight-packs and it comes to 60 ounces, which is slightly less than the contents of one Double Gulp before 7-Eleven downsized it from 64 ounces to a mere 50. On a per-ounce basis, consumers are effectively paying double for the smaller packages: 5.3¢ per ounce for Coke in mini cans, versus 2.6¢ per ounce for the same beverage in 12-ounce cans.

What explains consumers’ willingness to pay more for less soda? One explanation is that the mini cans are simply “freaking adorable,” as one source put it when speaking to the AP. She’s not the only one to think so. Last year, a marketing campaign deposited adorable mini kiosks—complete with adorable waist-high Coke vending machines selling adorable mini Cokes—in five German cities. Here’s a look:

The result of this experiment, in addition to enough adorableness to make your head explode, was sales that were anything but small. Ogilvy & Mather Berlin, the firm behind the campaign, said that the kiosks averaged 380 cans sold daily, 278% higher than your typical Coke machine.

Mini sodas aren’t selling like crazy just because they’re cute, however. As we’ve pointed out before, consumers are attracted to small sodas—and beer—because they come with fewer calories than the regular sizes. The great (or sad) irony is that research shows that consumers tend to buy (and drink) far more sugary drinks when they’re purchased in smaller packages. Therefore, whatever health benefits may have been gained via the small size is likely outweighed by the fact that you’re consuming as many or more ounces of soda overall.

In other words, as nonsensical as it seems, it may be healthier for you to buy soda in larger sizes. It’s certainly better for your wallet.

Read next: The Soda Industry’s Promises Mean Nothing

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TIME Diet/Nutrition

The Question Your Doctor Should Be Asking You — but Isn’t

Sugar Packet
Siede Preis—Getty Images

Almost half of adults surveyed drank at least one soda a day

The last time you went to the doctor, were you asked how much soda you drink? Probably not, but at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, it’s now among the standard questions doctors will ask—and then log into the patient’s electronic health record. Those records, analyzed in a new study, reveal some interesting connections between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and a slew of health problems.

“Information about a patient’s diet and physical activity are vitally important in preventing and managing certain diseases, yet it’s rarely captured in medical records,” says Ross Kristal, first author on the paper and medical student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Kristal and his colleagues looked at how much sugar-sweetened soda people drank, how many vegetables and fruits they ate and how active they were, among other things and noticed a correlation between a person’s soda habit and other health factors.

A full 40% of the people in the study drank at least one sugar-sweetened beverage every day. And the researchers noted that those who drank more than one per day were more likely to smoke, were more likely to eat no fruits or vegetables, and were more likely to have gone a month without much walking or biking.

READ MORE Weight Loss Supplements Don’t Work for Most People, Study Finds

On the flip side, people who didn’t drink a daily soda were less likely to have been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes and hypertension. It seems a doctor’s diabetes diagnosis may get people to drink less soda.

Right now, these health behaviors aren’t collected systematically, says senior author of the paper Peter Selwyn, MD, chair of family and social medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center. But the more doctors know about each of their patients’ health habits, the more they can engage them in an honest—and hopefully effective—conversation about their health.

“These associations can help our providers narrow down on perhaps who would be more at risk for some of these unhealthy behaviors which can lead to these poor health outcomes,” Kristal says.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Should I Drink Diet Soda?

Why the fake fizzy stuff falls flat

Welcome to Should I Eat This?—our weekly poll of five experts who answer nutrition questions that gnaw at you.

diet soda
Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME

5/5 experts say no.

Man, diet soda just can’t catch a break with these experts. Maybe that’s because it’s the ultimate hypocrite of the beverage world.

People probably get hooked on diet soda in the hope that the “diet” part will pay off. (Why else would you suffer an aftertaste as metallic as the can it comes in?) But liquid weight loss this is not. A 2014 study led by Sara Bleich, PhD, associate professor in health policy and management at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, suggests it might be just the opposite. Her research found that overweight and obese adults who drink diet beverages actually consume more calories from food than their sugar-soda-drinking peers.

“Oftentimes my patients come to me ecstatic because they’ve kicked their regular soda habit to the curb,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, registered dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. “Unfortunately, it’s often replaced with a new habit of drinking diet soda.”

Indeed, for all of its skinny-making promises, diet soda might be making you fat.

Artificial sweeteners—the super-sweet, low- or no-calorie lifeblood of diet soda—trigger greater activation of reward centers in the brain compared with regular old sugar. That activation changes the way you seem to experience the “reward” you get from sweet tastes, Bleich says. “Another way of thinking about this is that for diet beverage drinkers, the brain’s sweet sensors may no longer provide a reliable gauge of energy consumption,” Bleich says. A change in those brain signals might get in the way of appetite control.

This isn’t the only one of diet soda’s potentially weighty problems. A 2009 study by nutritional epidemiologist Jennifer Nettleton, PhD, and her team found associations between diet soda consumption and type 2 diabetes. Though an observational study of this kind can’t establish causal links, drinking at least one diet soda a day was associated with a 67% greater risk for type-2 diabetes compared to people who never or rarely drank it.

Susan Swithers, PhD, professor of behavioral neuroscience at Purdue University, wrote a 2013 paper looking at the evidence for and against diet soda. “Right now, the data indicate that over the long term, people who drink even one diet soda a day are at higher risk for health outcomes that they are probably drinking diet sodas to try to avoid, like type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension and stroke,” she says.

Not only does diet soda appear to fuel to problems it’s supposed to fight, but studies also link it to less obvious health issues. Vasan Ramachandran, MD, principal investigator of the Framingham Heart Study, points to a recent study linking soda, both sugary and diet, to a higher risk of hip fractures in women. It’s another observational study, he says, but that’s largely the way diet soda research goes. Some experts think that other factors might be contributing to the link between diet soda and poor health outcomes—not just the drink itself. But the associations are strong, the evidence is consistent and the biological mechanisms are plausible, he concludes.

A recent study in Nature shows that zero-calorie artificial sweeteners might mess with gut bacteria in a way that predisposes mice to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance—“the underlying precursors of metabolic abnormalities and diabetes,” Ramachandran says.

So next time you’re craving an aluminum can of carbonated non-food constituents like artificial colors, flavors and sweeteners, remember Nettleton’s voice in your head. If you’re thirsty, she says, drink water. If you’re tired, have a cup of coffee. And if you want a weight-loss aid to squash those hunger pangs, “Take a walk around the block.”

Still feel hungry? “Then eat,” she says. “You are hungry.”

Read next: Should I Eat Greek Yogurt?

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TIME Aging

16 Unexpected Ways to Add Years to Your Life

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Getty Images

Try these surprising habits that could help you live longer

The average American’s life expectancy is 78.7 years. Whether you reach that age—or better yet, exceed it—largely depends on your genes, but there are also many keys to longevity that are totally within your control. Some you probably already know about, like following a nutritious diet, exercising often, staying away from cigarettes, and maintaining a healthy weight. Other habits are a little less obvious. Read on for some surprising habits and lifestyle choices that could add years to your life.

Adopt a furry friend

Your four-legged companion may be helping you live a longer life, according to a review published in the journal Circulation. Researchers believe owning a dog might keep the owner more active and, as a result, lowers the risk of heart disease.

“Dog owners are who walk their dogs are more likely to meet recommendations for daily physical activity (150 minutes weekly),” says Eric A. Goedereis, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Webster University in St. Louis, MO. Owning a pet also reduces stress, which may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, he adds.

HEALTH.COM: 12 Ways Pets Improve Your Health

Have more sex

A roll in the hay may be the most pleasant way to extend your life. Several studies suggest there is a link between more orgasms and longevity. In a 1997 study, men who had more orgasms were less likely to die of heart disease than those who had less. While the study can’t prove cause and effect (maybe healthier people are more likely to have sex), sex can be beneficial for health. “Of course sex feels good, but it also gives us the opportunity to work out nearly every muscle in the body and connect with another person,” says Goedereis. “Sex has also been shown to boost the body’s immune response, reduce stress, and even control one’s appetite, among other things.” Two to three orgasms a week yields best benefits. Doctor’s orders.

HEALTH.COM:
13 Healthy Reasons to Have More Sex

Floss every day

Daily flossing not only gets rid of food trapped between your teeth but also removes the film of bacteria that forms before it has a chance to harden into plaque—something your toothbrush cannot do. Periodontal disease from lack of flossing can trigger low-grade inflammation, which increases the risk of early heart attack and stroke. Numerous studies link oral bacteria to cardiovascular disease. The American Dental Association recommends flossing at least once a day.

Have a positive attitude

Think being mean and ornery is what it takes to live to 100? That’s what scientists at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, New York thought until they studied 243 centenarians. When the researchers assessed their personalities, they discovered that most had a positive outlook on life, and were generally easygoing, optimistic, and full of laughter.

If nothing else, try to laugh more often—go to comedy shows, take occasional breaks at work to watch silly videos on YouTube, or spend time with people who make you smile. “Laughter helps decrease blood pressure, reduce blood sugars, dull pain, and lower stress, all of which can make your body healthier,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, psychologist and author of Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.

Be social

Going to the movies or out for coffee with friends may help all of you grow old together. An analysis by Brigham Young University looked at data from 148 studies and found a clear connection between social ties and lifespan. “People with stronger social relationships have a 50% greater chance of continued living as compared to those with weaker relationships,” says Lombardo. “Loneliness can also compromise your immune system, making it harder to fight off disease.”

HEALTH.COM: 12 Worst Habits for Your Mental Health

Go nuts

Snack on cashews, sprinkle chopped walnuts on your salad, stir almonds into your yogurt—however you eat them, it may be helpful. People who ate nuts several times a week had a reduced mortality risk compared with those who ate nuts less frequently (or at all), according to a 2013 New England Journal of Medicine study.

Nuts are high in antioxidants, fiber, and unsaturated fatty acids, and they help lower your risk of heart disease. “They are known to possibly improve certain risk factors for diabetes as well,” says Keri Gans, RD, a New York-based nutrition consultant. As a healthy but high-calorie snack, limit portion sizes to 1 ounce, or about 20 nuts.

Find your purpose

Regardless of your age, finding purpose in life may help you live long enough to make a difference. In a study of 6,000 people, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York found that people who had a greater sense of purpose were less likely to die during the 14-year study than those who were less focused on a goal. “People who have a sense of purpose in their lives may be more likely to take steps to be healthier,” says Lombardo. To develop a sense of purpose, focus on the positive impact you are making at work or at home instead of getting caught up with every little detail being perfect, she suggests.

Start your mornings with coffee

Sipping a mug of coffee not only jumpstarts your day, but your longevity as well. Studies show coffee reduces the risk of a number of chronic diseases. “Drinking coffee may decrease your risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease,” says Gans. Just go easy: too much caffeine can trigger anxiety and insomnia, or interfere with calcium absorption. And hold the whipped toppings like syrups and cream to avoid canceling out the health benefits.

Snooze soundly

Quality of sleep also plays in role in how long you may live. Multiple studies have linked sleep deprivation with an increased risk of death, and other research has shown that a lack of shuteye may raise risk of type 2 diabetes. “Some people may need more or less sleep than others, but research suggests that seven hours is probably enough,” says Goedereis. To sleep soundly, establish a nighttime routine and stick to a schedule, even on weekends.

See the glass as half full

An Illinois study found clear evidence that happy people experience better health and live longer than their unhappy peers. “Depression, pessimism, and stress predict shorter lifespans,” says Lombardo. “These mental states tend to cause a stress reaction within the body, which can weaken the immune system. Happiness, on the other hand, tends to result in less stress hormones.” Take time to experience gratitude every day. “It’s one of the quickest and longest-lasting ways to boost happiness,” she adds.

Ditch soda

Even if you’re not overweight, drinking soda may be shortening your lifespan, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health. The five-year study found a link between soda intake and shortening of the telomeres, which are caps on the ends of chromosomes directly linked to aging. Telomeres shorten each time a cell divides and are thought to be an aging “clock.” This study did not find the same link with diet soda, but other research has associated heavy diet soda drinking to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and depression—all potential life-shorteners.

HEALTH.COM: 10 Reasons to Give Up Diet Soda

Have a little bit of wine every day

Drinking a little less than one glass of wine a day is linked to a lower rate of cardiovascular death from all causes when compared to abstaining from all alcohol, according to a Dutch study. Researchers found that light alcohol consumption resulted in longer life expectancy at age 50. Drinking less than or equal to 20 grams per day of alcohol (that’s a little less than a serving of beer, wine, or spirits) was associated with a 36% lower risk of all causes of death and a 34% lower risk of cardiovascular death. And sorry, beer and cocktail fans: the same results were not found with light-to-moderate alcohol intake of other types.

Run 5 minutes a day

No need to run for an hour a day to reap the life-lengthening benefits. A new study shows running just 5 to 10 minutes a day increases your life expectancy by reducing the risk of death from heart disease by 58% and dropping the overall risk of death by 28%. It holds true even if you’re a slowpoke. Those who ran at less than 6 miles per hour only once or twice a week experienced clear benefits, the researchers reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Researchers credit better lung and heart function with the extended lifespan. Consistency works best, however: Exercisers who ran regularly for an average of six years reaped the greatest benefits.

Eat lots of fish

A diet heavy in omega-3-rich foods may add years to your life, says a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine. In the study of more than 2,600 adults, those with the highest blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids—found in salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, and lake trout—lived more than two years longer on average than those with lower blood levels. The study didn’t prove that being a fish-eater increases longevity, but suggests a connection. Researchers found that people with high omega-3 levels reduced their overall risk of death by any cause by up to 27% compared to those with the lowest levels, and that they had a 35% lower risk of dying from heart disease. Experts recommend at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fish a week.

Stop sitting so much

Simply stand up more during the day and you’ll boost your longevity by increasing the length of your telomeres, according to a study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The study measured the effects of sitting time and physical activity among 49 sedentary, overweight participants. Researchers found increased telomere length—end caps of chromosomes that link directly to longevity—in the red blood cells of individuals participating in a 6-month physical activity intervention.

Volunteer

Helping others not only feels good, it may help you live longer, too. A review of data from 40 published papers found a 20% lower risk of death than non-volunteers. The findings, published in the journal BMC Public Health, found that those who volunteered experienced lower levels of depression, better life satisfaction, and overall enhanced wellbeing. Another study found that retirees who volunteered at least 200 hours in the prior year were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers, lowering their risk of heart disease. Lend a hand for a win-win result.

This article originally appeared on Health.com

TIME 2014 Election

Big Soda Fights Bay Area Tax Proposals

Sugary Drinks
A shelf of soft drinks are shown in a refrigerator at K & D Market in San Francisco, on Oct. 1, 2014. Jeff Chiu—AP

The beverage industry has spent more than $10 million to persuade the liberal enclaves Berkeley and San Francisco to vote against taxing sugary soda on Nov. 4

If not here, where? On Tuesday, voters in the progressive California cities of Berkeley and San Francisco will decide on whether to tax sugar-heavy beverages like soda. Similar measures have failed in dozens of other cities, including reliably blue New York, and the association representing beverage giants like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo has donated more than $10 million to defeat the Bay Area levies. Players on both sides of the fight say that if taxing soda fails to win enough support in these liberal enclaves, it’s hard to imagine where else in the nation it could succeed.

“It’s important because it’s a first step,” says Berkeley City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, one of the unanimous votes in favor of putting the tax on the Nov. 4 ballot. “There’s a serious public health issue that needs to be addressed.”

Advocates for the taxes tout research linking sugar consumption to conditions like obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Some studies have shown that raising the price of sugary beverages causes sales to go down. In a 2013 study, Harvard researchers found that increasing the price of a 20 oz. soda by 20 cents led to a 16% sales drop.

Food policy writer Michael Pollan, a professor at the University of California—Berkeley who has endorsed the city’s measure, wants Berkeley to be a sort of pilot program. “I’m eager to see this experiment perform. We haven’t had a chance to see if taxing soda will reduce consumption because the industry has fought it so ferociously,” he says. “We need to try everything … I think there are still a lot of people out there who haven’t gotten the message that soda is bad for you.”

In Berkeley, Measure D would impose a one-cent-per-oz. tax on distributors of sugary drinks. If that tax was passed onto consumers, as the opposition argues it almost certainly will be, a $1.99 bottle of Coke at a Walgreen’s in Berkeley would cost $2.19. In San Francisco, Proposition E could institute a two-cent-per-oz. tax. Though the shorthand for the measures highlights soda, the taxes would apply to all high-calorie, sugary drinks. In San Francisco’s proposal, that means any beverage that contains added sugar and 25 or more calories per 12 oz.

Lower-income consumers, who both drink more soda and are more likely to be obese, have been at the center of the debate. San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, who supports the tax, says that education about the potential dangers of excessive sugar consumption has not been enough of a deterrent. He and other advocates hope that the levy will help push consumers to choose healthier beverages, reducing soda consumption and, hopefully, improving people’s health.

Critics of the measures see the taxes as another form of government intrusion into personal behavior. “When the government decides they want to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be eating, where does it end?” asks Roger Salazar, the spokesman for campaigns opposing both soda taxes. “Do they decide at some point that eating too many burgers is bad for you, so all burgers are going to be taxed?”

The campaign against the San Francisco tax has raised $9.1 million, while the Berkeley equivalent has raised $2.4 million. In both cases, almost all the money has come from the American Beverage Association’s political action committee.

Since no U.S. municipality has adopted a soda tax, it is not known how it would affect beverage sales. Ads opposing the taxes have made the case that the measures would lead to a drop in revenue for small businesses like convenience stores. Wiener calls that fear spurious. “If people drink less sugary drinks, they’re not going to stop drinking or buying drinks,” he says. “They’re just going to buy different drinks.” As evidence, he points to Mexico, where sales of high-calorie beverages dropped after a similar tax was instituted in January, while sales of low-calorie beverages and consumption of water increased.

The tax may stand a better chance of passing in Berkeley, partly because it will require only a majority of votes. Even the beverage association’s Salazar admits the political reality of the college town with a proud activist history. “Berkeley is an eclectic city. It’s different,” he says, “unlike any other city in California.”

The odds are tougher in San Francisco. Because the measure earmarks proceeds for health and nutrition programs, rather than going into the city’s general fund, two-thirds of voters must back the measure for it to pass. Wiener says they made the decision to set that higher bar after polling showed stronger support for a soda tax with revenue dedicated to the same cause behind the levy: promoting better habits.

To some tax supporters, even the debate around the issue is a win. Soda consumption has been slightly declining since 2005, and Pollan credits ballot measures like this one for creating awareness and making people think twice before they start swilling. “If [the tax proposal] fails, it could drive a stake in the heart of these efforts, at least for a while,” he says. “But even when these fights lose, they succeed in pointing the finger at soda as a problem.”

TIME Diet/Nutrition

4 Foods That May Shorten Your Life

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Some foods could actually hurt your chances of growing older

Everyone wants to know the secret to living longer. There’s no telling what exactly helps some people make it to 100, but healthy eating is one thing that sure does help.

Some foods, though, could actually hurt your chances of growing older by messing with components in your cells called telomeres. These little caps on the ends of your chromosomes are key for protecting DNA from damage—many experts compare them to the plastic tips on the end of shoelaces.

HEALTH.COM: 13 Everyday Habits That Are Aging You

Thing is, as your cells replicate, telomeres get shorter over time, according to the University of Utah Health Sciences. As telomeres shorten it can trigger cells to malfunction and die, and shorter telomeres have been linked to conditions like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Research has also shown lifestyle factors including diet can speed up (or slow down) the shortening process, which is sometimes thought of as an “aging clock.”

These four foods can contribute to telomere shortening, so it might be best to limit these eats for a long and healthy life.

Soda

Sugary soda is bad news for telomeres. A recent study of 5,309 adults in the American Journal of Public Health found that a daily 20-ounce serving of soda was associated with 4.6 more years of aging. To put that in perspective, it’s the same amount of aging researchers have linked to smoking. Drinking an 8-ounce soda daily had a smaller impact: it was linked to an additional 1.9 years of aging. While the researchers didn’t find a tie between telomeres and non-sugary diet soda, it might not be any better for you. Research shows that drinking diet soda daily is associated with a 67% greater risk of type 2 diabetes. And artificial sweeteners can increase sugar cravings, too.

HEALTH.COM: 10 Reasons to Give Up Diet Soda

Processed meat

Another no-no for telomeres is processed meat, like hot dogs and pepperoni. A 2008 study of 840 people in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the effect multiple food groups had on telomere length. Researchers found that people who consumed one or more servings of processed meat each week had shorter telomeres than those who didn’t eat any processed meat.

Red meat

Higher intake of red meat, like hamburgers and steak, has long been associated with heart disease and cancer, and that could be tied to its effect on telomeres. For a study in Clinical Nutrition, rats were fed varying diets of beef or chicken for four weeks. More red meat in the rats’ diet was linked to decreased telomere length in colon cells. Similar findings were shown for the white meat, though red meat had a greater effect. The good news: diets that included resistant starch, a good carb that helps you burn fat, weakened the effect red meat had on telomeres. More reason to fill up on foods rich in resistant starch, including bananas and lentils.

HEALTH.COM: 14 Ways to Age in Reverse

Alcohol

Like red meat, alcohol also gets a bad rap for its connection to chronic health conditions. A study presented at the 2010 American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting found alcohol can speed up telomere shortening, too. Researchers looked at the serum DNA of individuals who abused alcohol (22% had four or more drinks per day) and those with more moderate alcohol use. Telomeres were dramatically shorter in those who drank heavily. In fact, they were half as long as the telomeres of non-abusers (0.41 vs. 0.79 relative units), so it’s a good idea to be mindful of how much you drink.

HEALTH.COM: How Alcohol Affects Your Body

This article originally appeared on Health.com

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Soda May Age You as Much as Smoking, Study Says

The link between soda and telomere length

Nobody would mistake sugary soda for a health food, but a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health just found that a daily soda habit can age your immune cells almost two years.

Senior study author Elissa Epel, PhD, professor of psychiatry at University of California San Francisco, wanted to look at the mechanisms behind soda’s storied link to conditions like diabetes, heart attack, obesity, and even higher rates of death. She studied telomeres, the caps at the end of chromosomes in every cell in our body, from white blood cells. Shorter telomeres have been linked to health detriments like shorter lifespans and more stress, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, the study notes.

Epel and her team analyzed data from 5,309 adults in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from about 14 years ago. They found that people who drank more sugary soda tended to have shorter telomeres. Drinking an 8-ounce daily serving of soda corresponded to 1.9 years of additional aging, and drinking a daily 20-ounce serving was linked to 4.6 more years of aging. The latter, the authors point out, is exactly the same association found between telomere length and smoking.

Only the sugary, bubbly stuff showed this effect. Epel didn’t see any association between telomere length and diet soda intake. “The extremely high dose of sugar that we can put into our body within seconds by drinking sugared beverages is uniquely toxic to metabolism,” she says.

She also didn’t see a significant link between non-carbonated sugary beverages, like fruit juice, which Epel says surprised her. But she thinks the results might be different if the data were more modern. “We think that the jury’s still out on sugared beverages—theoretically they’re just as bad,” she says. “But 14 years ago people were drinking a lot less sugared beverages…they were mostly drinking soda.” At the time of the study, 21% of adults in the study reported consuming 20 ounces or more of sugar-sweetened soda each day, but soda consumption has been on the decline for years.

Telomere length dwindles naturally as we age, but it may not be an irreversible process. Previous research shows that it’s possible to increase telomere length by as much as 10% over 5 years by stressing less and eating a healthy diet—no soda included.

Read next: Here’s How to Stop Teens From Drinking Soda

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Here’s How to Stop Teens From Drinking Soda

soda bottles
Getty Images

When kids learn how far they’d have to walk to burn off the calories in a soda, they tend to buy smaller sizes or stop buying it altogether, suggests a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Researchers analyzed more than 3,000 drink purchases by children ages 7 to 18 at stores in low-income Baltimore neighborhoods and found that sugary drinks accounted for 98% of the beverages kids bought. But when researchers put up colorful signs with calorie information, that figure dropped to 89%. The most effective sign was the one that said it would take a five-mile walk to burn off the calories in the drink. Researchers argue that while laws already require beverage manufacturers to post caloric information, calorie numbers may not mean all that much to many consumers. More practical information, including statistics about how long it will take to burn calories, is easier to grasp.

“This is a very low-cost way to get children old enough to make their own purchases to drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and they appear to be effective even after they are removed,” says study author Sara N. Bleich, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University.

MORE: The Soda Industry’s Promises Mean Nothing

Sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas and energy drinks contribute significantly to a number of public health ailments that harm children, including obesity. In low-income communities the problem is especially rampant: Sugary drink consumption accounts for about 15% of a minority adolescent’s caloric intake, more than twice the recommended quantity. Interventions like this might help decrease that disparity.

“People don’t really understand what it means to say a typical soda has 250 calories,” says Bleich. “If you’re going to give people calorie information, there’s probably a better way to do it.”

Read next: The Soda Industry’s Promises Mean Nothing

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