Sodas may not sport the obvious dangers (or the kick) that a liter of scotch or a kilo of cocaine represent, but health advocates, researchers, nutritionists and, increasingly, government officials are speaking out ever-louder about the perils of consuming too many of these sugary soft drinks.
New York City has barred the sale of large-size sodas in restaurants and concession stands. Banned in Boston are full-calorie sodas and soda advertising in city buildings. And it was front-page news when it was learned Chicago and San Antonio will get some of the nation's first soda machines featuring calorie-count listings as part of an effort to win a $5 million grant from a national beverage lobbying group to reward city workers for living more healthily.
"The point about sodas is they are an easy target for public health intervention," said Marion Nestle, a nutritionist, New York University professor and influential author of "What to Eat." "All they are is sugar and calories. There's no redeeming feature. The last thing Americans need is extra calories."
Nor, soda's opponents add, do Americans need increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and other problems.
"People need to step back and look at their health," said Michelle Dudash, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based registered dietitian, author and nutritionist. "If you're overweight, cut back on the soda. "If you have weak tooth enamel, cut back on the soda. If you have a risk of heart disease, cut back on the soda."
Wrapping all these concerns up into one brand-new animated short film is the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nonprofit health advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. The film "takes back" the polar bear, one of the most popular figures ever used in soft drink advertising, to illustrate what too much soda drinking might lead to.
"The Real Bears" follows a cartoon polar bear family swilling soda as they huff and puff across the ice cap as a catchy tune by Jason Mraz plays in the background. It quickly becomes clear the family is having trouble getting around. Little Boy Bear is too fat to catch a fish through a hole in the ice, while his sister loses a tooth to soda-induced decay. Papa Bear suffers from obesity, which leads to diabetes, which leads to impotence. Only after Papa's leg is lopped off (you might want to watch the film first before sharing with the kiddies) does the polar bear family wake up and pour their sodas into the sea.
"This is the unhappy truth about soda. It wasn't so bad when soft drinks were the occasional treat," reads a statement at the film's website (therealbears.org). "But now sugary drinks are the No. 1 source of calories in the American diet."
Here's are some of the things top nutritionists and dietitians want you to think about next time you're thirsty and reaching for yet another soda or sweet drink:
Swear off the sugar, not the bubbles.
"Soda is not the only culprit," said Andrea Giancoli, a dietitian based in Hermosa Beach, Calif., who is a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Watch out, she said, for fruit drinks, bottled ice teas, energy drinks. Some of these drinks can have as much sugar - or more - than soda, she said. Read the labels.
"We are getting way too much added sugar in our diet," she added. "If you drink one 20-ounce sugar-sweetened beverage a day on top of your regular diet, that would be an extra 250 calories every day. You could gain 26 pounds in a year."
What to do? If it's the bubbles you crave, consider this advice from Lara Ferroni, the Portland, Ore.-based food writer and author of the new book, "Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats Without All the Junk." She recommends spiking club soda with a few drops of nonalcoholic bitters. These bitters, available in a variety of flavors including orange, lemon and rhubarb even, add flavors without a lot of sugar," she said.
Don't supersize it.
Once upon a time, a 12-ounce serving of soda was considered enough. Now, as Nestle notes, even the "small" soda at the movie theater is pretty darn big.
"People are not getting 20-ounce sodas, they're getting 40-ounce sodas that can have the same amount of calories as a meal," agreed Dudash, author of the upcoming book, "Clean Eating for Busy Families." It's important, she added, to "prioritize" those calories to focus on good-for-you foods and drinks that provide nutrients, fiber, protein, vitamins.
Diabetes and heart disease.
Papa Bear's travails vividly connect soda drinking to being overweight to eventually getting diabetes. The film cites a 2010 article in the journal Diabetes Care, which reported drinking one or two sugary drinks a day can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes by 25 percent.
The other concern, Giancoli said, is heart disease. Metabolic syndrome, a precursor to heart disease, is a "cluster" of symptoms - obesity, high blood sugar, hypertension, high triglycerides and low levels of so-called "good" cholesterol - that can, if not caught in time, lead to both cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes in people who don't have diabetes already.
Phosphoric acid gives soda that "zippy taste," Dudash said. But that acid can also be corrosive to the protective enamel found on your teeth; decay results.
There are other foods and ingredients, like citrus and citric acid, that can also be hard on the tooth enamel, but Dudash said at least these items offer something in return the body needs, be it fiber, vitamin C or folic acid.
Wean kids off soda, sugary drinks.
"Soft drinks of any kind do not belong in young children's diets," declared Tina Ruggiero, a registered dietitian in Tierra Verde, Fla. Growing bodies and minds need lots of nutrients, she said, adding, "There's no room for that junk."
At most, Ruggiero said soft drinks could be an "occasional treat" for children between the ages of 8 to 10. But, she said it's best not to have soft drinks around at all.
Diet soda doesn't let you off the hook.
Studies are mixed; some say these drinks may help with weight loss while others claim they can increase the possibility of stroke and metabolic syndrome. Ruggiero said men who drink diet sodas might be more at risk for cardiovascular disease.
"That doesn't mean one diet soda a day will lead to a heart attack, but there's some sort of connection," she said.
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