Dietitians’ Great Sugar Debate

One of the interesting sessions earlier this week at the annual dietitians’ conference FNCE was a 2 sided discussion entitled “Sweet Scrutiny: Debating the Research on Nutritive and Non-Nutritive Sweeteners”. Why do we emphasize 2 sides? because not all sessions gave 2 opposing camps an opportunity to present their views. In fact, many sessions were sponsored or hosted by food companies with very specific agendas. But anyway, back to this sugar debate. The discussion was mostly about sugary drinks.

Representing the industry view that soft drinks are not the cause of obesity was Dr. Theresa Nicklas, a a pediatric researcher from Baylor College of Medicine. According to Dr Nicklas, evidence suggesting sugary drinks played a major role in obesity was… inconclusive.

Dr. Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, contends that soft drinks are contributing to our growing waistlines. Sugary drink are easy to consume quickly, yet the body does not feel as full from a 200 calorie drink as it does from a 200 calorie snack. He also tackled the “inconclusive” results of studies so far, reminding us how long it took for tobacco studies to finally be accepted and lead to limitation on smoking. Finally, Dr. Popkin reminded the dietitians in the room to follow the money trail and see who funds the studies that have favorable outcomes to the food and beverage industry.

So an agreement was not reached during the session. But  you have to have your head in the sand to ignore the fact that we are consuming way more sugar than we used to. Whether in our soft drinks or in our cereal, America must make drastic cuts to its calorie consumption from sugar.

What do you think – do sugary beverages play a role in fattening up this country?

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  • Polish Mama on the Prairie

    Of course the sugary drinks affect your health.  Just like if you were to eat that much sugar and calories in candy (except that there is that lack of being full after a drink, as you put it).

    “Inconclusive” my foot.  Just like red and yellow food dye don’t cause ADHD symptoms, anxiety, birth defects, etc.  Just like some artificial sweeteners don’t cause liver and kidney damage or cancer.  I pay more attention to studies done in Europe because thus far the monster food & drug companies don’t have quite as much a stronghold in their government and health.

    Anyway, you could also pay attention to see the obesity rate in Mexico and it’s timetime in comparison to a particular soda company’s foothold in that country and how much the citizens there consume it (again, follow the timeline).  Their obesity rate is in DIRECT correspondance to this and Mexico is that soda company’s biggest consumer of it.  That is just one country to use as an example.

    • Lucia del Carmen

      I´m mexican and I completely understand your point, it´s incredible the amout of coke and sugary drinks people drink over here, I would love to see foodeducate to do a post aboutMexico and sugary beberages in comparision with the States, it would be interesting :)

  • Colin Jones

    I’d say inconclusive as well until an iron-proof, perfectly run long-term study finds such a claim scientifically backed. There’s too many independent variables since the 1950′s in food production to say that ONE item caused it. Of course, I strongly believe that such a tie between sugar and increased obesity is prevalent, but I doubt it being the sole causative factor. But it’s a big one in the factors I’d label.

  • Ruth’s Real Food

    While researchs argue whether one particular factor is “the” cause of the obesity epidemic or not, people continue to get fatter and sicker.

    It doesn’t matter whether soft drinks cause 27.8% or the problem or 61.38% of the problem. The fact is that they are part of the problem.

    The solution: Don’t drink soft drinks. Don’t eat pseudo-food. Drink water and eat real food.

  • Trish AB

    Just do the math: one 12-oz. Coca Cola softdrink = 140 calories.  Drinking one of these every day of the year = 51,100 calories.  That’s 51,100 *extra* calories you’re taking in every year, given that they come with no nutritive value, could be replaced by water, and don’t provide the fullness factor that a nutritional 140-calorie snack provides.  It takes 3500 calories to burn a pound of fat.  So, that one soda-pop per day is going to add 14.6 pounds of fat to your body in a year.  Conversely, if you drink a lot of sugar-laden soda pops, you could lose almost 15 pounds every year for each of your daily soda pops that you replace with water. 

    • Gerome

      Trish, the math does not work that way. Depending on your metabolism, you need between 10 and 15 calories to support a pound of body weight. So, let’s take your soda, and assume that the 140 calories are the amount above what you should have daily to maintain your weight. That extra soda, would add between about 10 and 14 pounds, and then stop because what had been perhaps a need for 2200 calories is now a need for 2340 at your new greater weight. Conversely, cutting 140 calories per day will result in that 10 to 14 pound weight loss and again you would stop losing unless you cut calories or increased metabolism.

      But, I’m with you. A cola every day is way too much and for most people is not a good way to add calories. I never drink sugared soda, and have only one or two diet colas a month.

  • Elizabeth Lee, MS RD

    Obesity is such a multifactorial disease that it’s necessary to account for and tackle all the causes. But I agree with Ruth’s Real Food, regardless whether soda’s the biggest contributor to growing waistlines, it’s still a contributor to the epidemic. 

  • Sharonredbarron

    I’d love to blame our growing waistlines on sugary drinks and HFCS.  But for me, I’m overweight and I drink at the most 6 cans of soda a year, with mostly cane sugar (I’ve done this for at least 10 years).  I also cook from scratch with hormone-free meat and farmers market mostly organic produce, and I rarely pick up fast food. I don’t eat desserts often, but I do drink wine and beer. Bottom line:  I eat too much and exercise too little (which I’m slowly turning around).  How about the rest of America?

    • Gerome

      Sharon, I think you are representative of many people. You are doing some things very well, others not so well. Your story is illustrative of the fact that there are plenty of ways to get yourself off track, even if the food you eat is high quality. What we cannot do is pick one culprit, like HFCS, and say “there’s the problem” believing that if we change one menu item or behavior we can expect a victory for diverse populations. You are not alone though in knowing exactly what the issue is: many people report that they know that they overeat and under-exercise and would lose weight if they changed those behaviors. I think one of the huge challenges we have as a society that does not get much physical activity at our jobs, is finding activities that are fun and burn calories. I love riding my bike, and hate going to the indoor gym in the winter. My scale reflects those feelings.

  • PerilouslyPrecocious

    Anything that lowers the threshold for sweetness increases a craving for sugar.

    And cravings, as a huge majority of us know too well, increase the consumption of whatever makes our mouth water at any given moment.


  • PerilouslyPrecocious

    Anything that lowers the threshold for sweetness increases a craving for sugar.

    And cravings, as a huge majority of us know too well, increase the consumption of whatever makes our mouth water at any given moment.


  • Greg

    Whether high-calorie drinks are “part of the problem” is an individual concern.  But in aggregate, there’s no doubt that empty calories are a part of the obesity problem in the U.S., and the problem isn’t just limited to sodas.  Sports drinks, flavored water, and even high-calorie coffee look-alikes all contribute to the problem.

  • FrugalArugula

    To me, that picture says, “You can’t trust a registered dietitian to give you the straight dope.”

    Do I feel the same way about physicians and their offices, pens, etc.? Yes.

  • Bobby DeMuro

    Without a doubt soft drinks are playing a role, and anything else to suggest otherwise is complete denial, pseudo-science, or somebody backed by beverage lobby money (or all of the above).

    No, it’s obviously not the only cause, as some people have wondered below. We know the causes are many. But good god, we’re consuming too much sugar – and soda is completely filled with it.

    I feel bad for Dr. Nicklas if she’s been bought by the industry. I understand the need to make money, and the desire to be rich. But at the cost of science?

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