What worries you most? Decaying teeth, thinning bones, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, cancer, obesity? Whatever tops your list, you may be surprised to know that all of these health problems are linked to the beverages you drink — or don’t drink.
Last year, with the support of the Unilever Health Institute in the Netherlands (Unilever owns Lipton Tea), a panel of experts on nutrition and health published a “Beverage Guidance System” in hopes of getting people to stop drinking their calories when those calories contribute little or nothing to their health and may actually detract from it.
The panel, led by Barry M. Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, was distressed by the burgeoning waistlines of Americans and the contribution that popular beverages make to weight problems. But the experts also reviewed 146 published reports to find the best evidence for the effects of various beverages on nearly all of the above health problems. I looked into a few others, and what follows is a summary of what we all found.
At the head of the list of preferred drinks is — you guessed it — water. No calories, no hazards, only benefits. But the panel expressed concern about bottled water fortified with nutrients, saying that consumers may think they don’t need to eat certain nutritious foods, which contain substances like fiber and phytochemicals lacking in these waters. (You can just imagine what the panel would have to say about vitamin-fortified sodas, which Coca-Cola and Pepsi plan to introduce in the coming months.)
Sweet Liquid Calories
About 21 percent of calories consumed by Americans over the age of 2 come from beverages, predominantly soft drinks and fruit drinks with added sugars, the panel said in its report. There has been a huge increase in sugar-sweetened drinks in recent decades, primarily at the expense of milk, which has clear nutritional benefits. The calories from these sugary drinks account for half the rise in caloric intake by Americans since the late 1970s.
Not only has the number of servings of these drinks risen, but serving size has ballooned, as well, with some retail outlets offering 32 ounces and free refills.
Add the current passion for smoothies and sweetened coffee drinks (there are 240 calories in a 16-ounce Starbucks Caffe Mocha without the whipped cream), and you can see why people are drinking themselves into XXXL sizes.
But calories from sweet drinks are not the only problem. The other matter cited by the panel, in its report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is that beverages have “weak satiety properties” — they do little or nothing to curb your appetite — and people do not compensate for the calories they drink by eating less.
Furthermore, some soft drinks contribute to other health problems. The American Academy of General Dentistry says that noncola carbonated beverages and canned (sweetened) iced tea harm tooth enamel, especially when consumed apart from meals. And a study of 2,500 adults in Framingham, Mass., linked cola consumption (regular and diet) to the thinning of hip bones in women.
If you must drink something sweet, the panel suggested a no-calorie beverage like diet soda prepared with an approved sweetener, though the experts recognized a lack of long-term safety data and the possibility that these drinks “condition” people to prefer sweetness.
Fruit juices are also a sweet alternative, although not nearly as good as whole fruits, which are better at satisfying hunger.