Soft drinks have become America’s favorite refreshment. So much so, that one out of every four beverages consumed is a carbonated soft drink. That comes to approximately 53 gallons of soda per year for every man, woman and child.

Annual soft drink production in the U.S. (12-ounce cans per person)

Source: National Soft Drink Association, Beverage World.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Americans spent over $54 billion to buy 14 billion gallons of soda in 1997 (the most recent year cited).

This is a substantial amount of money for a product with zero nutritional value. Worse, according an ongoing study of 91,249 women (the Nurses’ Health Study II), consumption of non-diet sodas is a contributing factor to weight gain in women. The study, although conducted on women, is believed to indicate the same risks for men as well.

“ The findings suggest that there is something especially unhealthy about calories consumed in liquid form,” said Caroline M. Apovian of the Boston University School of Medicine, who wrote an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association where the study was published (JAMA, August, 2004; 292: 978-979).

“ It seems that when you drink your calories as opposed to eating them, your body may not sense that you’ve just taken in those calories and your appetite doesn’t seem to compensate,” Apovian said. “The appetite circuit might not be programmed to register liquid calories.”

Obesity rates have risen in tandem with soft drink consumption which, in turn, increases the risk of diabetes. The study concluded that those who drank one or more non-diet sodas per day were 83 percent more likely to develop Type II Diabetes.

Soda consumption, in combination with a sedentary lifestyle, is a recipe for disaster. “The message is: Anyone who cares about their health or the health of their family would not consume these beverages,” said Walter C. Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, who helped conduct the study. “Parents who care about their children’s health should not keep [sodas] at home.”

Soft drinks have been a part of the American lifestyle for more than 100 years. Despite increasing awareness of their nutritional limitations, their recipes have had few changes and remain closely guarded secrets. Meanwhile, consumption has soared (see graph).

“There is no getting around it,” says Angela Brennan, the LHSFNA’s Health Promotion Division Associate Director. “Nutritionists and weight-loss experts routinely advise overweight individuals to consume fewer calories, and empty calorie foods such as soft drinks are a great place to start.

“However, the importance of an exercise program, in conjunction with a well-balanced diet, cannot be overstated,” Brennan emphasized. “The benefits will carry over into all facets of life: improved job performance, reduced stress, more strength and endurance, as well as better mental and physical health. Exercise will definitely improve the quality of life.”