More evidence that diet soda contributes to weight gain, not weight loss
A new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that people who drank diet soda gained almost triple the abdominal fat over nine years as those who didn’t drink diet soda. The study analyzed data from 749 people ages 65 and older who were asked, every couple of years, how many cans of soda they drank a day, and how many of those sodas were diet or regular.
Those answers ended up being extremely predictive of abdominal-fat gain, even after the researchers adjusted for factors like diabetes, smoking and levels of physical activity. People who didn’t drink diet soda gained about 0.8 in. around their waists over the study period, but people who drank diet soda daily gained 3.2 in. Those who fell in the middle — occasional drinkers of diet soda — gained about 1.8 in.
That change in waist circumference is especially concerning because it highlights an unfortunate truth about weight distribution: the belly is a bad place for extra pounds. The kind that pads the abs from the inside, called visceral fat, is associated with increased cardiovascular disease, inflammation and Type 2 diabetes.
These results, which the study authors call “striking,” add to the growing body of evidence that no- and low-calorie sweeteners may come with health concerns. Though scientists are still puzzling through the mechanisms by which diet soda seems to have the unintended consequence of weight gain, they have some ideas. Sugar-free sodas contain substances that sweeten up soda at 200-600 times the sweetness of sugar.
“Regular sugar has caloric consequences,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Helen Hazuda, professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. And one of those is that it triggers satiety — a sense of fullness or satisfaction. “Your body is used to knowing that a sweet taste means you are ingesting energy in the form of calories that, if you don’t burn them off, is going to convert to fat,” she says. Artificial sweeteners, however, confuse our bodies and weaken the link in our brains between sweetness and calories. That, Hazuda says, can lead to weight gain and cravings for sweeter and sweeter treats.
There may be something else at work. A recent study in mice showed that artificial sweeteners actually changed the gut bacteria of mice in ways that made them vulnerable to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance — both of which can lead to weight gain. And other mice research suggests that artificial sweeteners are associated with a drop in the appetite-regulating hormone leptin, Hazuda says. Leptin is the hormone that inhibits hunger.
The Calorie Control Council, an association that represents the reduced-calorie food and beverage industry — including alternative sweeteners — disagreed with the study’s findings. “The use of low-calorie sweeteners (LCSs) in weight management has been shown to be beneficial,” the group said in a statement. “While approaches to treat obesity in older individuals is controversial, diet modifications can be a successful part of a weight-management program for older adults.”
Researchers in the new study found that belly-fat gain was most pronounced in people who were already overweight. “People who are already at cardiometabolic risk because they have higher BMIs are really in double or triple jeopardy,” Hazuda says. “When they think they’re doing something good by drinking artificially sweetened beverages, it’s actually totally counterproductive.”
The anniversary comes at a difficult time for the soda maker
Coca-Cola is making a lot of the 100th anniversary of its iconic bottle. Given what’s happening with soda sales generally, and Coke sales in particular, the festivities come at a delicate time.
The celebration of the bottle includes an ad campaign in more than 100 countries featuring Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Ray Charles, and an exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta called “The Coca-Cola Bottle: An American Icon at 100.” The exhibit will include “more than 100 objects, including more than 15 works of art by Andy Warhol and more than 40 photographs inspired by or featuring the bottle,” the company said in a statement.
Warhol, of course, was pilloried for his seeming embrace of consumerism though works like the Campbell Soup Cans and Coke Bottles, though of course it wasn’t that simple. The result was that the counterculture had infiltrated consumer culture, and vice versa. Warhol, who saw consumer products as having a leveling effect, said this about Coke:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
The original bottle was designed by the Root Glass Company in Indiana, nearly 30 years after the product was launched in 1886. Root won a contest where participants were challenged to “develop a container recognizable even if broken on the ground or touched in the dark.” Root’s design allowed consumers to recognize the product “even if they felt it in the dark,” according to Coke.
The celebration comes during a rough period for Coke. It has implemented a massive cost-cutting campaign. Its quarterly profits were down by 55%, it reported earlier this month. Meanwhile, sales of sugary soft drinks in general are plunging, having dropped by more than 20% between 2004 and 2014. In an effort to capitalize on consumers’ move away from sugar and toward protein, Coke has introduced Fairlife milk products. The bottles are pretty cool, but one can wonder if anybody will be celebrating them 100 years from now.
Would include sodas, energy drinks, sweet teas and sports drinks
A California lawmaker introduced legislation Wednesday that would require sugary drinks sold in that state to carry a label that cautions they can contribute to “obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”
State Sen. Bill Monning’s bill would mandate the label for all beverages with added sweetener that have 75 or more calories per 12 ounces. That would include sodas, energy drinks, sweetened teas and sports drinks.
This is the second time Monning has tried to get safety labels on sugary drinks. In 2014, a similar bill passed the state Senate, but failed to pass the Assembly. But inspired, he said, that about 14% of Californians have diabetes (a number that tripled in the last 30 years), Monning is trying again. If the new bill passes, labeling would be required after a six-month grace period after the law is enacted.
“The state of California has a responsibility to inform consumers about products proven to be harmful to the public’s health,” Monning said in a statement. “This bill will give Californians the at-a-glance information they need to make more healthful choices every day.”
Major regulatory action on sugary drinks hasn’t gone too far in the past. In 2014, Illinois lawmakers tried to pass a tax on sugary drinks, but it was vetoed. Prior to that, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban sales of large-size sugary drinks, but that ban was struck down by a court.
A beverage industry trade group in the state dismissed the legislation as “counterproductive.”
“Obesity and diabetes are serious health conditions that are more complicated than a warning label. It is counterproductive to suggest that legislation affecting some beverages and not others will be effective,” said Bob Achermann, executive director of CalBev. “If consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is going down and diabetes is going up, then how are soda and other sweetened beverages driving the problem? The labeling bill is riddled with loopholes and will only confuse consumers, rather than help them make informed decisions.”
When shoppers are picking up groceries curbside or staring at their smartphones in the checkout line, they're not going to impulsively buy chocolate bars.
No one heads to the supermarket or drugstore with a shopping list that reads:
• Overpriced bottle of Coke
• Trashy celebrity magazine
• Bag of candy I’m not supposed to eat
At least, we hope no one has ever created such a shopping list.
Regardless, those items are snatched up and purchased by many shoppers, typically because they’re tempted while waiting in the checkout area. As customers stand in line, surrounded by the goodies stocked in the vicinity of the cash registers, sometimes their rumbling stomachs and base curiosities get the better of them. The result: They drop a few bucks to satisfy a chocolate craving or read about the latest contrived Kardashian scandal, and the store wins some quick and easy profits.
But what if there were no opportunity for the store to tempt you into making such ill-advised impulse buys? Well, in fact, it’s getting harder for stores to nudge customers into making checkout impulse grabs, and tech is a big reason why.
While the advent of smartphones doesn’t eliminate the possibility of checkout impulse purchases, research indicates that our iPhones and Androids serve as “mobile blinders” that shield us from mindlessly eyeing the candy shelves and other checkout area temptations. In other words, because we’re checking email or Twitter or Instagram or playing some silly game on our phones, the odds are lower that we’ll buy, or even see, gum, chocolate, and the latest issue of Cosmo.
What’s more, online shopping, as well as the increasingly popular option of ordering groceries or other goods online and then picking up purchases curbside, all but negates any chance for the shopper to make an impulse buy. Another potential impulse purchase killer is self-checkout: Because shoppers are occupied with scanning their orders, they’re not thinking about how wonderful that chocolate bar in front of them would taste.
For obvious reasons, companies whose business relies on such impulse purchases aren’t happy about any of this, and at least one large candy company is doing something about it. Recently, the blog Retail Wire took note of some comments on the topic—and what’s known by insiders as “dwell time”—made by Chris Witham, a senior manager of front-end experience for Hershey, at an industry event.
“Anytime there is a pause in the shopping trip and shoppers take a look at some of the merchandising that is available, that is dwell time,” explained Witham. Obviously, retailers and companies like Hershey want shoppers to encounter some “dwell time” in order to maximize the odds that they will add an impulse purchase to their carts. Still, they don’t want shoppers to get annoyed by being forced to wait around forever. “As they get to pay points, how much is a good amount of dwell time [going] to encourage impulse purchase, but not have a detrimental effect on the shopping trip as a whole?”
Among the strategies Hershey is actively working on to counter the effects of technology and boost opportunities for impulse buys are adding on-demand chocolate dispensers to self-checkout areas, as well as candy and snack kiosks and vending to curbside pickup areas and perhaps near the pumps at gas stations. What’s clear is that candy companies aren’t simply going to give up on pushing impulse sales, no matter how technology changes the game.
“Impulse, in an indulgent business, is really important … But shopping is changing, and impulse is under threat,” said Frank Jimenez, Hershey’s senior director of retail evolution, according to The (UK) Guardian. “What happens if and when the checkout goes away?”
And what happens if the majority of shoppers turn into those described by the Wall Street Journal last fall:
They are time-pressed and deal savvy, visiting stores only when they run out of items like cereal or toilet paper and after doing extensive research on purchases online and with friends. They buy what they came for—and then leave.
There’s little to no chance a store can ensnare this kind of shopper in an impulse buy. It’s a good thing for stores, and for companies such as Hershey, that other research indicates that 9 out of 10 consumers buy things that aren’t on their shopping lists, and that millennials are most likely to make impulse buys not because they spotted a good deal or promotion but simply to pamper themselves.
Among the takeaways for shoppers who don’t want to be suckered into impulse purchases: 1) Shop with a list. 2) Stick to the list. 3) Keep your head down at the checkout area to avoid temptation. 4) Take advantage of online shopping and/or curbside pick-up services when they make sense.
Girls who drink sugary beverages have their first period earlier, a new study says
Girls who consume a lot of sugary drinks, like sodas, often get their periods earlier than girls who do not, according to a new study.
In new research published in the journal Human Reproduction, researchers looked at 5,583 girls ages 9 to 14 between 1996 and 2001 and found that girls who drink over 1.5 servings of sugar-sweetened beverages a day had their first period 2.7 months earlier than girls who drank less. Girls who drank over 1.5 servings and never had their period, were also 24% more likely on average to start their first period in the next month compared to the girls who drank fewer sugary drinks.
Starting periods early is concerning since it can indicate a risk for breast cancer later in life. A one-year decrease in age at the start of a girl’s first menstrual cycle is estimated to increase the risk of breast cancer by 5%, the study authors say.
On average the girls drinking the most sugary beverages got their first period at 12.8 years, while girls drinking the smallest amount got theirs at age 13. The difference may seem small, but the researchers say that the few months discrepancy is a noticeable amount of time to be attributed to sugary drinks.
Since sugary beverages have a high glycemic index, the researchers say it’s possible that the resulting increase of insulin may raise the girls’ concentrations of sex hormones. These changes in sex hormones can cause earlier menstruation. The researchers also point out that 1.5 servings of sugary drinks is far less than what many young girls drink.
It’s been observed in both the United States and around the world that many girls are getting their periods at younger ages. The reason is not fully understood, and some medical experts speculate it could be linked to exposures to toxins like bisphenol A (BPA) or due to increasing weight or stress. The new research suggests diet could be a great factor, and the study authors say the link between sugary drinks and early menstruation should undergo further research.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.”
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