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Have a Coke and a Smile… and Obesity??

            Obesity is quickly becoming one of the biggest health concerns of the twenty first century. The most recent studies have found the obesity rate in Colorado to be approximately 18.7% (Ward-Smith par. 1).  According to the U.S Census Bureau, in 2009 there were 5,024,748 people living in Colorado (“State and County Quick Facts” fig. 1). This means that 939,624 Coloradans are considered obese. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Across the country, American’s are putting on more weight than ever before. The increase in the occurrence of obesity is nothing short of alarming. These people are at significant risk for heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and many types of cancers. Aside from the health concerns that are associated with obesity, depression, anxiety and other psychological disorders are also present. With so many ill effects directly related to a person’s weight, why is America, and Colorado, continuing to pack on the pounds? Some choose to blame that chair from La-Z-Boy, the Wendy’s on the way home from work, Grandma’s chocolate pecan pie, those video games that are so addicting, or the frequent beer enjoyed at the Ramskeller at Colorado State University . This is all true. There are numerous causes of obesity. Hence, there is no one trick that will prevent or cure this epidemic.

I have been studying nutrition and the human body at Colorado State University for nearly a year now. I regret to say that I have transformed into that person at the grocery store (who I once hated) with a basketful of artichokes, collard greens, flaxseed, and lintel beans. Admittedly, I have not yet been able to surrender my Oreo’s. As a soon-to-be dietician, I have come to realize that the key to a healthy weight is not simple, nor is it always as delicious as Grandma’s chocolate pecan pie. However, small changes in the diet can go a long way to staying healthy or, in many cases, becoming healthier. One of the biggest changes that can be made to the diet is cutting out the soft drinks that have become a staple at almost every meal. Soft drinks are a leading cause of obesity due to their sugar content, lack of nutrients, and failure to provide satiety to the body. There is strong evidence to suggest that eliminating soft drinks from the diet decreases a person’s risk of becoming obese later in life. If one simple lifestyle change can have so many benefits, it would be crazy to disregard.

It is common knowledge that soft drinks have a significant amount of sugar. An American favorite, original Coca-Cola, has 39 grams of sugar per 12oz serving. The USDA’s “Dietary Guidelines” recommend consuming no more than 40 grams of added sugar for the average adult abiding by a 2,000 calorie diet (“Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010” pt. 2). By comparing these two numbers, it becomes evident that just one soda contains nearly all the sugar that should be consumed in a day. This means that any other foods containing added sugar is excessive and unnecessary to the diet. Since many foods contain some added sugar, from ice cream to blueberry muffins, it is unavoidable to consume more than 40 grams of sugar in one day. According to the USDA, the body does not recognize the difference between processed sugar and natural sugar. Whether it be the sugar in a fresh peach or the sugar added to give Coca-Cola its refreshing taste, the body recognizes the same chemical structure (Mitka 742). It is inescapable that natural sugars, such as the sugar in a peach, will be present in the diet. For this reason, the “Dietary Guidelines” recommend limiting added sugar intake. The 39 grams of sugar in Coca-Cola, and all other soft drinks, is arbitrary to the diet and inevitably shows up as those dreaded love handles or unattractive thunder thighs.

Many people have recognized that the sugar in many soft drinks is unhealthy and can lead to weight gain overtime. That is why many have switched to products such as Coca-Cola Zero and other diet sodas. There is no sugar in these beverages; therefore, it must not be too bad for the diet, right? Admittedly, there is some truth to this statement. With no sugar present in these drinks, they are a better choice than their sugary counterparts. Although there are few, or no, calories in many of these diet soft drinks, it is still advisable that they be removed from the diet. A study from Purdue University showed that diet soft drinks, which contain artificial sweeteners, did cause weight gain over time. There are clear limitations to this study because it was performed on rats and not humans; however, these results about diet soft drinks are too alarming to disregard (“Diet Sodas Cause Weight Gain” video). A clip from ABC News’ Good Morning America accurately explains why it is beneficial to eliminate diet soft drinks from the diet, even though they contain few calories and sugars.

            Another major problem with all soft drinks, whether diet or regular, is that they contain no nutrients. The nutrition label on nearly any can of soda, will resemble the nutrition label from a 20oz bottle of Dr. Pepper as seen in figure 1 (“Dr. Pepper Remake Label” photograph).

By glancing at this nutrition label, it becomes evident that the contents of this soda are limited to sodium, carbohydrates, and sugars. A bottle of soda, containing  nearly 13% of the calories recommended in one day, contains none of the essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or protein required by the body. That is why many experts have dubbed the calories contained in soft drinks, such as this one, as “empty calories” (Hellmich par. 11). This means that metabolically speaking, the calories are insignificant to the body. There is little doubt that the calories provide energy to the body; however, this is potentially the only benefit of soft drinks. The calories are either used by the body, if there is not an overconsumption of calories in the diet, or they are stored as fat (Drewnowski par. 14). This is possibly one of the most harmful effects of drinking soft drinks. The “empty calories”, generally speaking, are consumed on top of the recommended 2000 calorie diet. According to an article published in National Geographic, this is dangerous to any diet. Experts in the field of nutrition say that by over consuming just 100 calories a day, not even a full bottle of Dr. Pepper, can result in an excess of 3,500 calories a year. These 3,500 calories correspond to a weight gain of approximately 10 pounds throughout the course of a year (Newman par. 24). The calories consumed are greater than the calories that are expended, resulting in this weight gain. Although this concept is highly dependent on the individual and their diet, it is still important to recognize that the “empty calories” contained in soft drinks have ill effects. Since soft drinks provide no real nutrients to the body, cutting these calories from the diet will have only benefits—assuming that the consumer gets enough calories from other sources throughout the day. From a nutrition stand point, there is no reason that these sugary beverages are indispensible to the diet (Mitka 742).

A final point that many experts in the field of nutrition are eager to point out is the point on satiety. By definition, satiety is the condition of being full and satisfied (“Satiety” par. 1). Soft drinks, along with nearly all other drinks, are consumed in order to quench thirst. Drinks are not consumed with the intention that they will replace meals, or even snacks. Several studies have shown that drinks are considerably less satisfying than solid food sources (Hellmich par. 12). The implications of this are widespread. After drinking a Mountain Dew as an early afternoon pick-me-up, chances are good that the Mountain Dew has satisfied the thirst, but not the appetite. Inevitably, there will still be a lunch of maybe a turkey sandwich, some potato chips, and a chocolate chip cookie. In this respect, the Mountain Dew failed to suppress hunger. As previously mentioned, the argument on satiety is connected to the argument that can be made about “empty calories”. Because the Mountain Dew was consumed, but failed to provide satiety to the consumer, the calories from this soft drink are additional calories in the diet. The consumer is still likely to consume a 2,000 calorie diet from food sources, however, calories from beverages often do not factor into this calorie intake.

Some critics have ventured to say that beverages, including soft drinks, do provide a certain degree of satiety. This theory is less widely accepted and is mostly supported by interest groups such as the American Beverage Association (Hellmich par. 13). The basis of this theory is found in nutrient density. Nutrient density is the term used to identify foods, or beverages, that are high in nutrient content. In this sense, satiety is dependent on the nutrient content of the individual food, or beverage, being consumed. Milk, for example, is a nutrient dense beverage containing high amounts of calcium, potassium, protein, vitamin D, vitamin B12 (cobalamin), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacin), and phosphorus. This beverage is extremely nutrient dense and therefore does provide some satiety to the body (Newman par. 22). Most of the arguments claiming that soft drinks also provide satiety to the body fail to recognize that soft drinks are not nutrient dense beverages. As a result, the argument made by many interest groups is insufficient.

Soft drinks may seem like an afterthought in the obesity debate. When compared to lack of exercise and fast food double cheeseburgers, it is easy to overlook these beverages. Admittedly, there are more factors that contribute to the onset of obesity than just that can of Coke sitting in the refrigerator. Even though soft drinks are just one component of obesity, they are an important component. Soft drinks have extremely high amounts of sugar, no nutrients, and they provide no satiety to the body. Sure, they may taste good and be enjoyable for an hour or two, but in the long run they are extremely harmful. According to one study published by the University of California Los Angeles, adults who drink one or more soft drinks a day are 27% more likely to become overweight, or even obese (Babey, Jones, Yu, Goldstein 1). These results are startling and supported by many similar studies that have been conducted around the nation.

Our country is widening at a disturbing rate. Although Colorado is the skinniest of the United States, we will catch up to the rest of the nation if we stand aside and do nothing. Here at Colorado State University, it is our duty to take control of our health and our future. At Rams Horn, one of several cafeterias on the Colorado State University campus, 44 of 100 students choose to consume a soft drink alongside their Tuesday afternoon lunch. This may appear to be harmless. However, this would mean that of the 26,500 students enrolled at Colorado State University (Facts & Figures sec. 3), 11,660 students are at a considerable risk of struggling with obesity in the future. Not only will these students struggle with the psychological, physical, economic, and social disadvantages of being obese, they will also have to deal with the medical consequences of obesity. Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and hypertension are just a few of the many medical problems that can arise from obesity. So, why not now? By eliminating soft drinks from the diet, it is possible to live healthier, and skinnier, lives. Just one simple adjustment in the diet can benefit the body in countless ways. Now is the time to get healthy. Skip the soft drinks. Keep Colorado the skinniest— and best—state in the union.


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