This is an article I wrote back in 2006 for the dojo Web site. I post it again because I think it’s just as important now as it was back in 2006.
My name is Sue, and I am a CocaCola addict. And, no, that is not a rhetorical device. I mean that literally. For many years I drank a can of Coke every morning for breakfast. In addition, I would drink Coke or root beer with pizza (maybe twice a month) as well as the occasional root beer float for desert. When middle age arrived and decided to settle into my body, I found it ever harder to maintain a reasonable weight. I decided to investigate just how much my breakfast Coke was costing me in calories. What I found was that it cost me dearly both in terms of calories and in terms of the potential effect on my health.
Here’s where it all started: the calories. For simplicity’s sake I figured that I had been drinking about 400 cans of soda each year. That’s 365 cans of breakfast Coke plus 35 cans at other times. Each can is 155 calories. That’s 62,000 calories a year, enough to put almost 18 pounds on me each year if I didn’t cut back on my eating or increase my exercise. On top of that, the 400 cans of soda contain 83 cups of sugar. At 2-1/2 cups to a pound, that’s 37 pounds of sugar a year.
Thirty-seven pounds of sugar! First I was appalled. Then, being something of a researcher by nature, I was curious what that kind of sugar intake does to a body. OK, what I really wanted was assurance that if I gave up my daily Coke, I’d be healthier. Here’s what I found. It’s enough that on the day after Thanksgiving day in 2006, I went off the soda cold turkey (so to speak).
The high fructose corn syrup in sodas is not a health food.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), the sugar I had been drinking all these years, is not the same thing as fructose. I figured HFCS was maybe a concentrated form of fructose, but it’s not. Fructose is a naturally occurring sugar found in fruit. HFCS is a synthetic compound, one that involves several layers of processing involving enzymes and bacteria and fungus by-products. The end result is fructose chemically melded to glucose, something that is not exactly fructose and not exactly glucose. Despite being in “natural” sodas, it is not “natural” by any definition I’m aware of. It has all the problems of refined sugar and perhaps a few of its own. When you combine it with carbonated water and flavorings, you get a drink that is sweet and appealing, but that beyond that has no other redeeming values.
Sodas make you fat
OK, so I didn’t exactly need “20-20″ to tell me that a lot of Americans are fat. I’ve been to the mall lately. What I didn’t realize is how much the increase in obesity in America has paralleled the increase in HFCS consumption. Though, researchers don’t go so far as to say that the obesity epidemic is caused by sodas sweetened with HFCS, nobody seems to doubt that sodas play a role, maybe a major one.
“Well, duh,” you say. 62,000 calories, 37 pounds of sugar per year? Yeah, that sounds like it could play a role in obesity. But it seems there is more than just calorie math going on here. Some of it has to do with satiety, some with the way HFCS is processed by the body.
Satiety is the mechanism by which the body signals the brain that it’s had enough food. If you eat all the calories you need, your body responds by telling your brain, “I’m full.” You stop eating; your body uses the calories you’ve already taken in; and you don’t get hungry again until you need more food. That’s the way the system is supposed to work. If you take in too many calories via sweetened soft drinks, however, this feedback mechanism doesn’t work quite as well. Fructose, including HFCS, stimulates insulin secretion less than other sugars. When there is less insulin secretion, there is less leptin release, leptin being the hormone that signals the brain that body’s had enough food. So you’ve drunk plenty of calories for the day, but your brain doesn’t get the signal until you’re over your daily allowance. Studies show that when people add sweetened soft drinks to their diet, they don’t decrease the amount of other calories they take in; they just add food calories to soft drink calories and get fat.
On top of the satiety issue is the metabolism issue. In technical terms, HFCS is more lipogenic than either glucose or starch. That means it’s more likely to be turned into fat by the liver than other sugars. When your body takes in sugars, it uses some to replace glycogen (fuel) stores in the muscles, it sends some as glucose to the brain for it to use as fuel, and it stores the rest as fat to be used later, just in case you need fuel but don’t have the food to provide it. HFCS is less likely to go to the first two uses and more likely to be made directly into fat. It’s not certain that the fat produced from HFCS is stored more readily than that produced from other sugars. But in general, any fat the body doesn’t use, it stores. So if your body has just missed the cue that it’s already taken in enough calories, and if you now have lots of nice new fat floating around your bloodstream looking for something to do. . .
Sodas are bad for your cardiovascular system.
The hazards of sodas go beyond obesity, however. The more lipogenic the sugar, the greater the hazard.
In men especially, HFCS raises triglycerides, the fat in the bloodstream that’s associated with coronary artery disease. Moreover, all refined sugars can increase your LDL (bad) cholesterol while lowering your HDL (good) cholesterol. HFCS is no exception. In fact, HFCS may raise cholesterol more than most sugars. The effect seems to be compounded if you eat a high fat diet (think: pizza and soda) or if you are sedentary or overweight. HFCS may also increase your blood pressure.
In other words, for years I had been avoiding red meat, eating reduced fat cheese and less of it, favoring olive oil over butter; and it turns out that it may not be fat that’s responsible for my borderline cholesterol. It may be sugar. It may be my daily Classic Coke.
Sodas jeopardize your bones
As a young woman I watched my grandmother recover from a broken hip. I’ve seen the consequences of osteoporosis in my family, and can say with authority that it is not a nice disease. Consequently, I’ve been following the recommendation– taking calcium, doing my weight-bearing exercise. But without realizing it, I was doing one thing wrong: I was drinking my daily Coke.
According to the Framingham Osteoporosis Study women who consume cola on a daily basis have lower bone density than women who don’t. Researchers have wondered why that could be. They speculated that soda replaced healthier drinks. In fact a study showed that increased intake of sodas is usually accompanied by decreased intake of milk and the calcium it provides. But lately they’re beginning to think that it’s more than that. Consumption of HFCS changes the balance of minerals in the body in a way that can lead to bone loss. They aren’t sure exactly how that mechanism works yet. But they’re pretty sure that something is going on, and it’s not good for the bones.
Sodas are bad for your teeth
Your mother was right. Soda does rot your teeth. Higher intake of sugared soft drinks is associated with increased numbers of cavities in the teeth in children. In fact, colas are ten times more erosive to teeth than fruit juice. We won’t even mention the stains.
Sodas may make you more likely to have blood sugar problems
A while back, the media was running with a recent study, proclaiming that sodas cause diabetes. Not surprisingly, it’s not that simple. We don’t know that the connection between HFCS and diabetes is a simple causal one. It probably isn’t. What we do know is that consumption of high fiber carbohydrates is associated with a lower chance of diabetes; consumption of highly-refined, low fiber diets is associated with increased risk. You can’t get much more highly refined and low fiber than a can of soda. We can also say that HFCS does seem to have an effect on the way the body regulates blood sugar, and that effect doesn’t look good. In animal studies fructose has been associated with insulin resistance and impaired glucose tolerance. High consumption of simple sugars, including HFCS, leads to loss of chromium, which in turn impairs glucose metabolism. And statistically speaking, the more HFCS you eat (or drink) the greater the chances that you will have blood sugar problems.
That may not be enough for researchers to make a definitive statement, but it’s enough for me to change some of my habits.
Sodas may create other health problems as well
So. . . obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, osteoporosis, rotten teeth– we seem to be picking up a pattern. HFCS is not health food. But stay tuned, there’s more.
In an admittedly extreme study, rats who were fed a lifetime of Coca-Cola instead of their usual water had a much significantly higher cancer rate than normal rats. Students in Norway who consumed more soda were more likely to be hyperactive and have conduct problems in school. People who drink sodas are more likely to have gastroesophageal reflux. And now we find that sodas that contain ascorbic acid (for tartness) and sodium or potassium benzoate (preservatives) tend to undergo a chemical reaction that forms benzene. Benzene is a known carcinogen that’s associated with leukemia, aplastic anemia, and other blood diseases.
The advantages of HFCS over sugar
In the interest of equal time, here’s what the industry says about HFCS (boiled down by me, of course): HFCS is easier for food manufacturers to work with than sucrose. It’s relatively cheap. It has lots of advantages over sugar for consumers. Besides, HFCS is sweet, sweeter than sugar. People like sweetness. It tastes good.
So I gave up the Coke. I save a bit of money, about $120 per year, reduce the amount of aluminum I consume, put a bit less cash in the hands of the multi-nationals, have a bit more room in my frig. But most of all, I’ll stop stressing my body for a few minutes of sweetness that’s become more habit than anything.
It has been almost three months since I wrote this. Here’s an update. I have to say that the first month without soda was not easy. Every morning, I’d stick my head in the refrigerator and reach for the red can. It wasn’t there, and that’s when I’d remember. For a while I drank water, then grapefruit juice, now one of several 100% juices I’ve discovered. I craved the Coke quite badly for a while, still do sometimes. But more than that, I saw how much of my soda drinking wasn’t a taste for the stuff; it was mere habit. I’d drink it before even waking up in the morning. I’d go to a restaurant, and there was the soda machine waiting with free refills. I’d eat pizza, and I’d think about my can of Coke. If my cravings and habits are any indication, I probably underestimated when I guessed I drank 400 cans per year.
Besides the cravings and habits, there are two other things I’ve discovered. One is just how much the colors of soda cans attract. I’m seeing them now not just as someone who loyally went for the red can, but as an expatriate from the land of pop. I find myself noticing the happy colors, the bold graphics hinting not of obesity and osteoporosis but of sparkly refreshment. They were a Pavlovian trigger for me, and I never realized it. I’d see the colors, associate it with sweetness and carbonation, and I’d want it (and maybe an order of fries or a slice of pizza to go with it). I didn’t want it because I was thirsty; I wanted it because it was attractive. The colors and graphics seemed to call to me to the point where all I had to do is see a soda machine and I’d start thinking about breaking my resolution.
The other thing I discovered I discovered a couple of days ago. I was very hungry, having come off of two hours of karate without enough to eat before hand. I needed to drive across town for an appointment and swung by Jack in the Box for some fries to tide me over until supper. I’m not sure why, but I ordered a small Coke to go with it, my first in nearly three months. Do you know what I discovered? It’s not that good. It tasted foreign, fakey, too sweet, and with an odd aftertaste. I didn’t finish it. My mouth discovered what my brain already knew– that Coke is not food; Coke is a simulated food-like substance, a pseudo-food. Get off it for a while, and your taste buds will tell you: the emperor has no clothes. This isn’t food. In fact it isn’t even a very good pseudo-food. Now maybe Jack in the Box did me a favor and served me a cup with the mix a bit off, or maybe this is what happens once the “addiction” is broken. But I don’t think I even like the stuff any more. All the better for me and my health.
I am happy to report that since it was written, I’ve drunk maybe four or five Cokes. That’s not too bad for six years. I can say without a doubt now that it was an addiction. You don’t crave something for five years because you think it tastes kind of good. I still want it, usually because I’m responding to CocaCola red in a restaurant or because someone walks by with a can of it. If I have one, I think about it several times a day for a couple of weeks afterward.
I’ve given up HFCS in everything I eat at home. I sometimes get in in restaurants. An interesting twist on the cravings is that if I eat anything with HFCS in it, I crave Classic Coke. I can tell which restaurants use the stuff from my cravings. That’s why I’m off the fast food completely now (that and about 50 other reasons). Fast food is HFCS Central. I’m eating more real food that I cook myself, and when I go out it’s for good-quality food, not just something fast. And, by the way, my cholesterol is down quite a bit. I’d like to knock off a few more points, but since I gave up the HFCS and fast food, it’s down noticeably.