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What Are the Health Risks of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages?

Sugary drinks linked to weight gain, weight-related diseases

Bottle of orange soda being poured onto a glasss,

Sugary drinks linked to weight gain, weight-related diseases

Doctors for years have warned that a high sugar diet can lead to weight gain and weight-related diseases, including obesity and type 2 diabetes. Sugary drinks – also known as sugar-sweetened beverages – are especially harmful.


Typically, high in calories and low on nutrition, sugary beverages are widely consumed in the United States.


 According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health:


  • Half of the population consumes sugary drinks on a given day.
  • 1 in 4 people get at least 200 calories from sugary drinks
  •  5% get at least 567 calories – the equivalent of four cans of soda


Concerted efforts have been made to curb our thirst for sugary drinks with some success. Consumption of sugary drinks has been declining in recent years, but more needs to be done. Around the world, the US continues to rank high in soft drink consumption.


“The problem remains the same. The more sugar-sweetened beverages that you consume, the higher your risk for weight gain and weight-related health problems, including developing type 2 diabetes,” says Ken Fujioka, MD, an endocrinologist and director of the Scripps Clinic Center for Weight Management.

What is a sugar-sweetened beverage?

Sugar-sweetened beverages are drinks with added sugars or other sweeteners. Added sugars are different than naturally occurring sugars that are found in milk, fruits and vegetables.


Added sugars are sugars and syrups often found in processed foods and beverages.


They are found in sodas, colas, fruit punch, sweetened teas, coffee drinks, energy drinks and sports drinks.


They are sugary drinks if they contain any of these added sugar ingredients:


  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Honey
  • Sugar
  • Syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Sucrose
  • Dextrose

Sugary drinks and weight gain

As a category, sugary drinks are the largest source of calories and added sugars in the American diet.


While they are high on calories, sugary drinks do not fill you up as quickly as solid foods do, which makes it easy to take in more calories than you really need.


Sugary drinks should only play a small role in your diet, especially if you want to lose pounds to get to a healthy weight.


“It’s important to be aware of the amount of sugar found in what we eat and drink,” notes Dr. Fujioka. “We don’t do that enough.”


Added sugars should be limited to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, That’s 200 calories, or about 12 teaspoons, for a 2,000-calorie diet. The average American gets 270 calories of added sugars each day or about 17 teaspoons of sugar.

Sugary drinks and health problems

Simple sugars are used to make sugar-sweetened beverages. Because they are metabolized quickly, they cause blood sugar levels to rise rapidly and stimulate the production of insulin. High levels of insulin can lead to weight gain and obesity, and that can lead to chronic problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, degenerative joint disease, asthma, fatty liver disease and reproductive cancers.

Sugary drinks and children

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the US and sugary drinks are a major contributor. Sugary drinks are the main source of added sugars in the daily diet of children and adolescents. Studies show they are a main cause of excess weight and obesity in young people.


Today, one in five children, ages 2 to 19, is obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Rates are highest among Hispanics (25.6 percent) and African Americans, (24.2 percent).


“The number of kids becoming obese has increased dramatically over the past decades due largely to the amounts of sugary drinks that they consume,” Dr. Fujioka says. “These children are at an increased risk of becoming obese adults with chronic health problems.”

Drinks without sugar

For anyone who drinks soda or any other sugary drink on a regular basis, quitting or cutting back may seem difficult. But if it’s just a matter of quenching your thirst, you can’t do better than drinks without added sugars.


Water and low-fat or non-fat milk are healthy ways to stay hydrated.


If you love the fizziness of a soda, carbonated beverages, including sparkling water, have the same effect without the calories. Add lemon and lime to your drink to enhance the flavor.


Natural juice works better than juice with added sugars, but in general even “natural juice” can have too many calories and simple sugars. Dr. Fujioka says the best way to get sugar is by eating fruit not drinking it.

Check label for added sugars and calories

It’s easy to keep track of the calories and added sugars found in the food and drink products that you buy at the store. Just read the nutrition fact label.


Calories are listed per serving. Added sugars are included in grams and as a percent Daily Value (DV), which can help you determine if a serving of food or drink is high or low in a nutrient.