Soda Is Not the #1 Cause of Obesity

After being ignored for many years, sugar consumption is finally receiving some well-deserved scorn from scientists, journalists, and even the federal government for causing obesity and metabolic syndrome. But as often happens with complicated issues, sugar's role in making us fat and sick is being oversimplified. Specifically, soda and other sugary drinks are being blamed disproportionately for the rise in obesity America has experienced in recent decades.

According to CNN, the research linking sugar consumption to obesity is giving ammunition to the public health advocates who would like to treat soda as "public health enemy no. 1." There's no doubt that soda can make us fat, but treating it as the primary cause of weight gain and related diseases won't solve our health problems and could actually exacerbate them.

To begin, the majority of added sugars we consume come from the foods we eat (59%), according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report. Soda is responsible for only 41%. Additionally, soda constitutes a very small part of the average American's caloric intake. Of course, avoiding soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks (inaccurately labeled "energy drinks" etc.) is a good idea. But it's only part of the solution. The truth is that the standard American diet is composed in large part of nutritionally empty food, and as 2010 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) article pointed out, "All high-caloric foods can be tied to obesity."

Public health advocates who primarily lay blame for obesity on soda often cite studies linking decreased consumption of the drink with weight loss, but there's hardly a consensus in this regard. One study, for example, found that focusing exclusively on soda is not enough to curb obesity for the same reason stipulated in the NEJM article: Sugar is ubiquitous in our food supply. Since a soda tax is the most common method used to reduce the amount we drink, we simply switch to other untaxed sugary foods and beverages.

Another study from the UK also found that such sin taxes have a dismal effect on soda consumption. Furthermore, some states that have already implemented soda taxes also happen to have the highest obesity rates in the country. If taxes won't work at the state level, then there's little reason to think we should enact more of them.

Moreover, foods that tend to get a pass because they're supposedly healthy also contribute to obesity. Cardiologist and author of Wheat Belly Dr. William Davis points out that two slices of whole grain wheat bread have the same impact on blood sugar as a can of soda or a snickers bar. Recall that foods which raise blood sugar cause weight gain because high blood sugar is toxic. Our bodies produce a hormone called insulin to bring it down to a reasonable level. But insulin brings down blood sugar by converting it to fat and sending it into your fat cells to be stored. That's uncontroversial science, yet nobody would dare to suggest a tax on whole wheat bread as a way to reduce obesity. In fact, it supposed to be the basis for a healthy diet.

It also should be pointed out that we aren't lab rats to be experimented on. We tend to forget during discussions about the science of obesity that individual choice is an important concept. And since fat people aren't anymore of a drain on the health care system than the rest of us, taxes and other sorts of restrictions on personal behavior should be rejected.

With that said, don't drink soda. It's unhealthy and it does cause weight gain because of all the sugar it contains. But avoiding soda is just part of the problem. Demonizing only part of an overall unhealthy diet is pointless. Switch to diet soda or water, but lay off the starchy foods like potatoes and rice and grains as well. There's no other solution to our weight problems.

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Cameron English

I cover public health, nutrition and science education for PolicyMic. I also write critical thinking exercises for high school science textbooks. My previous work includes freelance writing and editing for Science 2.0. I've never been paid by Monsanto for my opinions, though that would be awesome.

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