Other large cities, including Boston and possibly Washington D.C., are joining New York City in limiting the sale of certain sugary beverages.  The debate wages on, however, regarding whether banning sugar-sweetened beverages (which includes those sweetened with HFCS) is really going to help combat the obesity epidemic. If we put aside for a minute the other issues that have arisen out of this debate, such as personal choice and responsibility and the emergence of a “nanny” state, and focus exclusively on the core of the issue, the size of the beverages, science has shown pretty clearly one thing: the bigger the beverage, the more you will drink.

There are classic studies showing that if you provide people with larger portions, they eat more. When you go out to a restaurant and the waiter places a plate of food in front of you, most people eat what is on the plate even though it is much more than one would normally eat. It is perceived as a “normal” portion because it is presented on a dinner plate, but in reality, the plate may contain an entire day’s worth of calories! Humans are social beings and we have a natural tendency to go with the group, so if we are given a larger-than-needed meal, but everyone else is eating what they’ve been given, we will usually eat what is presented to us as well.

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the consumption of beverages sweetened with sugars both in the US and around the world and some suggest that this rise in intake is associated with the obesity epidemic. Additionally, the consumption of these beverages has also been shown to alter metabolism and increase the risk for type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other conditions such as gout or dental caries. There are lots of culprits out there: things like soft drinks, sweetened waters, coffee drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks and even apple juice. One problem is that the size of these beverages can be very deceiving and a way in which more sugar and calories can unknowingly sneak into your diet. A conventional 12-ounce serving of a typical sugar-sweetened carbonated beverage, for example, is approximately 150 calories. But, people rarely drink one serving. In fast-food chains, convenience stores, and movie theaters, these beverages are offered in portions that can contain around 300 to 500 calories.

Moreover, while Americans have been drinking more sweetened, calorie-rich drinks, there has not been a simultaneous decrease in the consumption of other foods to compensate for the excess calorie intake. Have you ever drunk a can of soda and felt full? Sugar-sweetened beverages can quench your thirst on a hot day and give you a jolt of energy from the caffeine and sugar, but they don’t make you feel less hungry. It is almost as if your body doesn’t “count” calories when they come in liquid form. Not only do people often fail reduce their caloric intake from other sources when drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, but drinking calories may even make you feel less full and lead you eat more. The end result is that all of those calories obtained from drinking sodas and fruit juices are just being tacked on top of what you are eating anyway.

Liquid sugar equals empty calories. There is little or no nutritional value in these drinks. It seems to just add calories, and when these calories aren’t burned, they turn into excess body weight. Even cutting just one serving per day has been shown to produce a weight loss of 1.1 lbs (0.49 kg) at 6 months, and 1.4 lbs (0.65 kg) at 18 months. That might not sound like a tremendous amount, but remember that many people are not drinking just one 12-oz serving per day. Approximately half of Americans drink sugary beverages “on a given day,” and within this half, about 25% derive 200 or more calories from them. So, you can do the math to figure out how much weight one could lose if the average person cut out all of their sugar-sweetened beverages. To put things in perspective, in 2009, Americans consumed 13.8 billion gallons of soda; the average person consumes 70,000 calories from sweet drinks each year; and research suggests that 45 gallons are consumed per person per year. The bottom line is that drinking your calories can lead to a host of problems that may lead to obesity and weight gain, including passive calorie overconsumption, incomplete energy compensation, and the displacement of more nutritious and filling foods. Banning unnecessarily large portions of calorie-rich, sugary beverages will inevitably reduce the amount of empty liquid calories we consume, which will translate into weight loss.

Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 50 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She recently edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (Springer/Humana Press, 2013), and she has a book on food and addiction forthcoming in 2014. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association.


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About the Author

Nicole Avena, Ph.D.

Nicole Avena, Ph.D., is a research neuroscientist and an expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction.

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