We live in a culture of grande lattes, sports drinks, exotic-sounding bottled juices, and sweetened fruit "teas." Fancy coffee chains abound, as do refrigerator cases stocked with icy soft drinks; nearly everywhere you turn, you see people walking or driving with one of these beverages in hand. We rate cars by the number of cup holders, which now come heated and cooled. Without question, we’re a nation of high-calorie beverage guzzlers, and though these drinks may taste good, we’re paying a hidden cost.
One in every five calories in our American diet comes from beverages. When we were a thinner country, "beverages" meant water, tea, and coffee. Frozen blended drinks had not been invented yet. Based on scientific observation alone, soft drinks are guilty of contributing to the fattening of America. Soft-drink consumption has increased almost threefold in the past 20 years. Can you guess what else has radically increased over the past two decades? That’s right: the size of our derrières.
As always, the proof is in the scientific research. A recent study of 91,000 nurses compared weight changes between drinkers of regular and diet drinks. After eight years, the regular beverage drinkers weighed 17 pounds more, as compared to the diet drinkers, who on average weighed only two pounds more. The nurses who switched to diet beverages halfway through the study nearly stopped gaining weight. Another study, of Massachusetts schoolchildren, showed that one additional soft drink per day increased the risk of obesity by 60 percent.
What explains the association between caloric soft drinks and obesity? Soft drinks, whether made with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, are liquid calories. And liquid calories are a big problem if you’re trying to lose weight because they are less satiating or filling, and so we don’t compensate for them by eating less food later in the day. Indeed, while fruit juices are certainly better nutritionally than soft drinks, most contain about the same amount of sugar as soft drinks and are probably just as fattening. Eat whole fruits and skip the juices.
Case Study: Kirk
Kirk hadn’t seen a doctor in years, although his Dunlap’s Syndrome was obvious to everyone. This common malady is when the belly dun laps over the belt. He wore a size 42 belt but measured 46 inches around his waist. Kirk finally came to see me when he could no longer walk up a flight of stairs.
I had bad news for Kirk. He had all five features of metabolic syndrome: central obesity; high blood pressure, sugar, and triglycerides; and low HDL (good) cholesterol. His triglycerides of 4,000 were so high that a white layer rose to the top of his blood-sample tube like cream on raw milk. Although Kirk turned out not to have advanced coronary artery blockages, his heart had been weakened by years of uncontrolled high blood pressure. That’s why he was so short of breath.
Kirk swore he ate very little, but on cross-examination admitted to drinking five or six 16-ounce bottles of regular cola each day. It never occurred to him that he was drinking in excess of 1,200 calories per day, or more than half the total calories he needed.
I convinced Kirk to switch to diet cola. Although he disliked it at first, after a few months he admitted that it wasn’t so bad. Right now we’re working on the next step, which is replacing some of the cola with water and coffee.
Kirk lost 20 pounds and two inches around the waist in three months without making any other changes. His triglycerides dropped to 400, which is not great, but certainly a lot better than 4,000! He needs only one instead of two medications to control his blood pressure, and he is much less short of breath.
Switching to Water, Diet, and Skim
As evidenced by Kirk, cutting out calorie-laden beverages is one of the easiest ways to lose weight. If you currently drink at least two eight-ounce caloric beverages per day and switch to water, diet soda, or skim milk (in your coffee or by itself), you’ll have found an easy way to cut out 200 calories per day. It’s an easy calorie reduction that won’t make you any hungrier. And this one simple change to your daily diet could help you drop about 20 pounds in one year.
We know your objections. First, you think that artificial sweeteners in diet drinks will kill you because they are not “natural.” In fact, however, diet drinks are quite a bit safer than sugar-rich obesity- and diabetes-generating beverages. While some artificial sweeteners like saccharin have been loosely linked to cancer in male rats when given in extremely high doses, all the well-designed studies that have attempted to link artificial sweeteners to cancer in humans have found absolutely no association. Nor is there any data linking any artificial sweetener with headaches, nausea, stomach problems, or other symptom or disease. The Food and Drug Administration closely watches these widely used food additives and has concluded that there is no health risk. In contrast, being overweight or obese is likely to kill you. This is one clear instance where artificial beats natural—assuming you can call refined sugars “natural.” On each dining-room table at the Pritikin Longevity Center are packets of noncaloric sweetener. We encourage you to dump out your sugar bowl at home and fill it with the little no-calorie packets instead.
Second, you don’t like the taste of diet drinks. I encourage you, though, to try to change to an equivalent diet drink (diet soda for regular soda, or coffee with skim milk or soymilk and sweetener rather than cream and sugar) for two or three months. Like most of the guests we see at Pritikin who need to make this change, you might hate the taste for the first month but will tolerate it for the next month, and after two or three months, sugar-dense drinks will taste sickly sweet.
We can get used to almost anything we eat. Milk is a good example. The first time I tried skim milk, it tasted like water. After drinking skim milk for decades now, 1 percent fat milk tastes like cream to me. The same is true of diet drinks. Our tastes adapt in a few months; if you haven’t given diet beverages a long enough trial, try again.
Key Point to Remember
Reducing your soft-drink intake by 16 ounces per day eliminates more than 200 calories daily. This one simple change to your daily diet could help you drop about 20 pounds in one year.
From THE PRITIKIN EDGE by Robert A. Vogel. Copyright (c) 2008 by Dr. Robert Vogel and The Pritikin Organization, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.