Why is Sugar Bad for You?

Pinup girl waiter with soda

We all know that sugar is bad for our health, but it is pretty easy to underestimate the damage it can do.

After all, sugar is in so many different things and it is so very hard to avoid.

But, what are the implications of sugar for your health and why is sugar bad for you?

Many of the implications you will already know, like the way that sugar can contribute to weight gain or to the development of diabetes.

A very recent research study found out something else about the impacts of sugar – something that might just influence your decision next time you reach for that soda.

The Study Itself

This research study focused on sugar-sweetened beverages and their impacts on the fat tissue around the abdomen.

The data used for the study came from the Framingham Heart Study, which is a large and extensive study focusing on identifying the risk factors for heart disease.

The study initially began in 1948 and followed 5,209 adults from Framingham, Massachusetts. At present, the study is now following the third generation of participants and continues to collect an extensive amount of data.

The Framingham Heart Study is amazing for the amount of information it is able to collect and the way that it can follow individuals and lifestyles.

Part of the Framingham Heart Studies involves a food questionnaire that looks at the consumption of 126 food items and the frequency of consumption.

This questionnaire had 9 frequency categories for each food item.

This ranged from non-consumption to more than 6 servings each day.

The authors of the study at hand looked at the data for four different types of sugared drinks.

These were:

Cups of soda
  • ​Caffeinated soda with sugar
  • Caffeine-free soda with sugar
  • Other carbonated drinks with sugar
  • Fruit punch, lemonade and non-carbonated fruit drink

Diet soda was also considered, as the consumption of diet soda acts as a control for the study.

The study considered these beverages collectively as sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) and also individually.

One of the key outcomes analyzed in the study was the overall frequency of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption.

To do this, the authors categorized participants into four groups.

  • Non-consumers: Less than 1 serving per month
  • Occasional consumers: 1 serving per month to less than 1 serving per week
  • Frequent consumers: 1 serving per week to 1 serving per day
  • Daily consumers: More than 1 serving per day

The same categorization was used for diet soda as well.

The authors then used statistical analysis to determine the relationship between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and a range of outcomes.

Additionally, potential confounding factors were taken into account in the analysis as much as possible.

Results of the Study

Young boys with soda

The authors found that 85% of the sample population consumed either sugar-sweetened beverage and diet soda, while 1% consumed both and 14% did not consume either type of drink.

The authors noted the following patterns.

Sugar-sweetened soda consumers were more likely to:

  • ​Be younger
  • Be male
  • Be engaged in a slightly higher amount of physical activity
  • Be smokers

They were also less likely to have diabetes.

As you can probably imagine, the soda itself is unlikely to have caused all of those patterns.

So, those outcomes don't really address the question why is sugar bad for you. ​

In fact, the lower prevalence of diabetes is an example of reverse causation.

On average, people who drink regular soda are less likely to have diabetes, because people tend to switch to diet soda (or stop drinking soda altogether) when they find out that they have diabetes.

Surprisingly, the authors did not find any significant association between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and change in body weight across the study period.

But, they did still find some significant effects.

One key outcome was that higher consumption of sugar-sweetened soda was associated with a higher VAT volume.

VAT stands for visceral adipose tissue and refers to the fat that accumulates around the waist. It is considered to be a risk factor for heart disease and is also viewed as one of the most dangerous types of fat in the body.

Additionally, this fat has its own chemical properties, which makes it very important (1). For example, the site The Science of Eating talks about why visceral fat is so significant

So, essentially the authors’ findings mean that higher amounts of sugared soda consumption results in a larger gut.

To make matters worse, the placement of this fat means that it present around some important organs, like the intestines and the liver.

Strengths and Limitations

The key strength of this study was where the data came from.

The Framington study does collect a large amount of data and that does give it significant statistical power.

Bottles of soda

Additionally, the authors of this study used statistical models effectively to try and reduce the potential for confounding effects.

Nevertheless, the Framington study is still an observational study, so there is no way to be certain that the soda caused the observed effects.

Additionally, the Framington study considers a largely white population all living within a single geographical area.

So, while the outcomes may be true for that particular population, they are not necessarily true for other populations or other environments.

The authors also noted that the study did not account for all other types of beverages, such as low calorie and artificially sweetened drinks that aren’t carbonated.

Implications of the Study

Most people would agree that sugared soda makes people gain weight, but this study takes that information one step further.

It shows that sugared soda contributes to fat gain in the wrong places.

This could potentially contribute to the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as other negative health outcomes.

The outcomes of the study show that we cannot become complacent about soda, especially for people who are consuming soda on a daily basis.

An additional note is that the highest level of consumption in this study was daily consumption.

Now, I personally know many people who drink soda daily and some who might drink multiple cans of soda in a day.

So, if these results are present for people who have around one serving of soda per day – the implications are probably much higher for the people who consume higher amounts of soda.

This study considered the outcomes of sugared drinks, but similar outcomes may well be true for other products that are high in sugar.

More research is needed before we know whether this is the case, but the outcomes of this study alone certainly suggest using caution with any sugared food or drink. Thankfully, there are many healthy alternatives to soda, as this list from Food Renegade shows. 

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Does this information change your perception about soda? 

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