Corn syrup and artificial sweeteners are even worse for you than you thought

Beverages containing sugar (and/or high fructose corn syrup) are known to contribute to the obesity epidemic that is raging in the U.S. currently. People who count every calorie in the food they eat may pick up a can of sweetened soda and drink it without being aware that they may have just consumed 300 calories. The calories in the excess carbohydrates taken in that are above the number of calories burned are retained, leading to weight gain. This, among other things (like lack of exercise, poor food choices and others) are likely driving our obesity outbreak.

A large study has recently shown that even drinking one can of sweetened soda daily can substantially increase the risk for type II diabetes. But it also showed that sugar-containing soda can also significantly increase the risk of heart attacks and fatal heart disease as well as stroke, independent of whether or not the patient has diabetes. Data from the study shows that people drinking one (or more) sugar-sweetened beverages daily had a 26% higher risk of developing type II diabetes, a 35% increased risk of having a heart attack (or other fatal heart disease) and a 16% increase in the risk of having a stroke.

The researchers also looked at the role fructose (fruit sugar) plays in this scenario. High-fructose corn syrup is fairly ubiquitous. It’s used to sweeten any number of foods, soda being one of them. If you look at the nutrition facts on that can of soda you’re sipping now, you’ll probably see it listed as one of the top three ingredients. That can be important because of the biochemistry and metabolism of fructose. Somewhat simplified, glucose is absorbed by the small intestine, passes through the liver and into the bloodstream. Fructose, on the other hand, is absorbed by the small intestine, goes to the liver where it gets metabolized to triglycerides. The triglycerides can lead to insulin resistance (one of the contributors to type II diabetes) and to fatty liver. The triglycerides can also contribute to the formation of plaque in coronary, cerebral and other arteries.

The researchers say that while just decreasing or eliminating the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages won’t end the obesity epidemic, it can help slow it. And it may have a significant effect on lowering cardiovascular diseases.

So, should you quit sugar-sweetened beverages altogether? No. You can still have them as a treat, just don’t make a daily habit of them. You can also look for sweetened beverages that do not use HFCS as a sweetening agent. But, they will contain other sugars, so again, limit their intake.

But lest you think that artificially sweetened beverages are better . . .

A forthcoming study took a look at the amount of “discretionary foods” consumed and what beverages are drunk with those foods.

Discretionary foods are those which contain little to no real nutritive value, and are typically high in salt, sugar, cholesterol or fats and calories. We usually think of these as junk foods, or “empty calories.” These foods are ones that can easily cause weight gain and may not leave us feeling full, so that we’re hungry again a fairly short time after eating.

Sugar free via Shutterstock

Sugar free via Shutterstock

The author looked at the eating and drinking habits of about 20,000 people from a large study. The beverages he looked at were: coffee, tea, alcohol, diet beverages and sugar-sweetened beverages. People who drank alcohol or sugar-sweetened beverages tended to have the highest daily calorie intake. Those who drank diet beverages or coffee had the highest calorie intake that was from discretionary foods, and therefore had poorer-quality diets (as did those who also drank sugar-sweetened beverages).

One of the outcomes is that people who do drink diet beverages (or coffee) tend to eat more calories and more of those calories come from junk (discretionary) foods. That leads to less nutritious diets and, often, weight gain.

So it appears that both artificially-sweetened and sugar-sweetened beverage drinkers make poor food choices and can gain weight. Just switching to a diet beverage may not be at all helpful if you’re trying to lose weight unless you look at your other eating habits, too.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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