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Healthy Beverages for Active Individuals

The Risks of Simple Sugars: Part I

Sugar & Beverages

By Alan Safdi, M.D., FACG

Dr. Alan Safdi is past chairman of the Section of Gastroenterology at Deaconess Hospital and served as co-founder and president of the Ohio Gastroenterology and Liver Institute. Dr. Safdi is board certified in internal medicine and gastroenterology, and is a Fellow of the American College of Gastroenterology. He is former chairman of the Crohn’s and Colitis Medical Advisory Board in Cincinnati and still serves as president of Consultants for Clinical Research. He was also co-founder of eMerge Health Solutions, Consultants for Clinical Research, and outpatient GI and anesthesia programs.

Sugar is everywhere and is especially prevalent in many of the beverages we see daily. Not all sugar is bad, but the simple sugars added to sports drinks, diet drinks and soft drinks will certainly have an adverse effect on your body in the long run. In this article, we will go through some of the most disturbing consequences of adding sugars to your diet via beverages. These consequences include heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Plus, we’ll take a look at the safe beverages you should be consuming.

Simple sugars are carbohydrates which are quickly absorbed by our bodies to produce energy. Simple sugars include a vast array of familiar products including table sugar (including cane sugar, raw sugar and brown sugar), agave, high fructose corn syrup, maltose, sucrose, tapioca syrup, and agave nectar (which includes as much as 70-92 percent fructose), plus molasses, honey, fruit juice, and maple syrup. Food and beverage producers dump these simple sugars into stuff we buy at the grocery store and often try and hide the fact the foods or beverages contain simple sugars. They use some of the names above to try and fool the public.

The fructose half of table sugar (the other half is sucrose) and all the other simple sugars cause a lot of trouble in the body. Fructose is nearly exclusively used in the liver, so it is not an energy source for the brain, muscles or anything else. When the liver gets overloaded, it turns some of the fructose into triglycerides, the main constituents of body fat in humans. When this stuff flows into the blood stream, we see an increase in the bad form of cholesterol called LDL cholesterol. That, in turn, can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries and result in heart disease and stroke.

Sugary Beverages

A study published in March, 2017 shows that a higher consumption of sugary beverages is associated with some of the markers for pre-clinical Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, higher consumption of sugary beverages was associated with a lower total brain volume. Ironically, everyday fruit juice consumption was related to lower total brain volume, hippocampal volume (memory area of the brain) and poorer episodic memory (the memory of autobiographical events). Yes, some amount of fruit juice is fine. If you are a big juice drinker, consider switching to  whole fruit, which also contains fiber and phytochemicals. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes are the best sources of phytochemicals (substances produced by growing plants, for various purposes including protection from pathogens).

Your body may not register the calories in drinks as well as it does the calories in food. When you down sweetened beverages (think sweetened iced tea or soda) before or with a meal, your body may not compensate for those sugar calories by eating or drinking less of something else that day. That means the simple sugars build up faster than they might if all your sugar came from food.

Making matters worse: serving sizes for beverages are ballooning, and that makes Americans balloon, too. Beverages contribute to this country’s obesity epidemic. What’s really changed in our diets over the last few decades is that we’re drinking a lot more calories than we ever did before.

Diet & Soft Drinks

While diet drinks are a hot topic, to date we have no large specific studies. Sugar-free and diet drinks are often perceived as healthier options than sugared drinks, but it can be argued that they do not promote healthy weight. In fact, there is no solid evidence to support claims that diet drinks are any better for your health, or that they prevent obesity and obesity-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Despite having little or no energy content, there is a concern that artificially–sweetened beverages might stimulate sweet-taste receptors and thereby trigger compensatory food intake. This, together with consumer awareness of the low–calorie content of artificially–sweetened beverages, may result in overconsumption of other foods.

An additional issue with sugar-sweetened soft drinks is potential gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy). A February 2017 study suggests that higher consumption of sugar–sweetened soft drinks before pregnancy was an independent risk factor for gestational diabetes.

How Soft Drinks Are Connected to Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. The signs include obesity or excess body fat around the waist, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and abnormal cholesterol and or triglyceride levels. A study published in January 2017 suggested that consumption of both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages is indeed connected with metabolic syndrome. The connection could be driven by the fact that soft drink consumption serves as a catalyst for an unhealthy lifestyle or an adverse cardiovascular risk-factor profile.

Good Beverages

Here are some safe (and good) beverage options:

  • Water should always be your number one source of hydration
  • Sparkling water with or without natural flavors
  • Blended smoothies – As a first rule of thumb: blending is good, juicing is not. Blending smoothies and drinks keeps the fiber and phytochemicals (flavonoids), in the foods you whereas juicing takes all these good things out. Recommended ingredients for a blended smoothie include blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, oranges, bananas, apples, kale, spinach, carrots, 100% natural peanut butter (no additives), unsweetened Greek yogurt, chia seeds, hemp, or ground flax seeds.
  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Small amounts of juices

It’s tough to cut out the sugary beverages you are used to. In fact, those drinks are addictive. Sugars release a chemical (C-fos) in your brain that makes you want more. C-fos is similar to chemicals released by narcotics. So, it’s extremely hard to give up simple sugars. I think my parents probably put Coke in my milk bottle, so even as an infant I was addicted. When I finally kicked the sugar habit I had withdrawal symptoms and cravings for months. But if you can give up simple sugars, the benefits to your body will be evident pretty quickly.

If you must go for those sugary drinks, remember that complex carbohydrates (think peas, nuts, beans, whole grains, and vegetables) and proteins actually lower the sugar absorption rate, so eating right as you drink is better than just slamming down Coke or beer. So, if you are going to drink sugary stuff after skiing, make sure you also order complex carbs and protein-rich foods.

In Part II of this article, we will look at simple sugars in our food.

The information included in my posts are for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information in my posts does not create a physician-patient relationship.

Alan V. Safdi MD, FACG
Co-founder Emerge Healthcare Solutions and Consultants for Clinical Research
Past President Ohio Gastroenterology and Liver Institute
President Nominations Committee Ohio GI Society
Served as Chairman Section of Gastroenterology at.Deaconess Hospital
President Consultants for Clinical Research
Past Chairman Cincinnati Crohn’s & Colitis Medical Advisory Committee
Former Medical Director Tri-State Endoscopy Center
Served as President of the Ohio Gastroenterology Society
Lectures Nationally and Internationally on Health and Wellness