The Worst Food on the Planet
- Nutrition 911, Part VI By Steve Edwards
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Welcome to Part VI of our oh-so-basic nutrition class
designed to give you an overview of basic nutrition and make healthy eating
much simpler. In Part
I, we addressed the terms organic, grass-fed, free-range, and farm-raised.
analyzed the ever-popular "fat-free" and trendy "low-carb" slogans. In
Part III, we took
the CliffsNotes approach to reading food labels.
Last time (Part V), we
discussed what you should eat. This time, let's talk about what you shouldn't
eat. Actually, I mean drink; leading to our first lesson of the day. Calories
are calories, whether you eat them or drink them. And just what are the worst
calories you can consume? The answer is soda pop. Forget about brands; whether
it's Coke, Barq's Root Beer, or Dr. Pepper, it's all junk. The taste might make
you happy, but from a nutritional point of view, soda's only place in the world
is to make people fat, sick, and unhappy.
In America, we drink a lot of cola (or "un-cola"). A
lot. On average we each drink over 50 gallons of soda each year, and this
figure includes infants, healthy folks, prisoners, etc., meaning that the
average soda drinker actually gulps (their word) more than this. Carbonated
soft drinks are the biggest single caloric source in the American diet.
Teenagers, in particular, are hooked on the stuff and get an average of 13
percent of their daily calories from "pop." If this doesn't scare you, it
should. In terms of sheer amount, these statistics could be alarming if it were
any one food. A proper diet should have some balance and diversity. And soda
pop is the antithesis of "any food." It's bad food.
We use the term "empty
calories" for foods, like soda, that have no place in a nutritious diet. I feel
this term is misleading. The calories in soda are far from empty. Most of them
come from sugar. In the USA, it's nearly always high-fructose corn syrup, the
cheapest, most processed sugar on the market. Other ingredients include
caffeine, various phosphates and acids, and artificial colorings. We'll get to
their effects on the human body in a minute, but first, let's stick to the
simple stuff. The average teenager consumes between 10 and 15 teaspoons per day
of refined sugar via sodaabout their daily requirement, according to government
standards, for all foods. This means, that for the average teenager, their soda
consumption virtually eliminates their chances of eating a balanced diet.
There's nothing empty about that.
The soda companies are a marketing
juggernaut. They spend roughly $700 million a year on media advertising alone.
Not to mention hundreds of millions more sponsoring events, athletes,
musicians, and such. This volume of cash makes it difficult for consumers to
avoid them, by design. To avoid the temptation to drink Coke, you've got to be
highly principled or living in the middle of the jungle. And even then, well, I
once happened upon a soda vending machine halfway up Mount Yarigatake in the
Japanese Alps and a friend traveling in Guatemala found Coke in a rural area
that didn't have running water. Let's just say, they're going to continue to
make it easy for you to find the stuff.
This type of marketing
machine won't go away quietly. With the stats above, you could certainly put
two and two together and link soda companies to the childhood (and adult)
obesity epidemic that is arguably the world's most serious health crisis. Yet,
while researching this article I came across a widely published "study" stating
that "soft drink consumption has no effect on childhood obesity." Suspicious
from the get-go (the word "no" being a huge red flag), it didn't take me long
to find this statement: "The research paper was supported by an unrestricted
gift from the American Beverage Association." Bingo. Remember those Phillip
Morris tobacco "studies" that promised a long and healthy life from chain
What makes it
Besides the simple caloric trade-off, sodas are formulated
to give you a rush. The sugar is mixed with phosphates designed to speed it
into your system. It's so good, in fact, that many cyclists prefer Coca-Cola to
specific sports food when they need a sugar rush near the end of races. And,
while a sugar rush is a good thing when you're trying to exceed your anaerobic
threshold and are out of blood glycogen (never mind, if you don't know what
this is), it's a bad thing whenever you're not, which is even a competitive
cyclist's state of being 99 percent of the time.
Beyond the simple sugar rush, these acids and
phosphates alter your body's pH levels and inhibit absorption of other
nutrients. Then there are the effects of certain artificial coloring agents.
For example, yellow #5, commonly used in soft drinks, has been linked to
attention deficit disorder, hives, asthma, and other allergic reactions in some
Then there is the
nutrient trade-off to consider. A person who drinks a Big Gulp per day must go
to great lengths to maintain a balanced diet. Otherwise they will almost
certainly be deficient in numerous vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and
essential fatty or amino acidsnone of which are found in soda. For this
reason, soda is often linked to type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, dental erosion,
and a higher risk of kidney stones and heart disease. And that's just a start.
There's plenty of less scientific data linking soda to
Diet sodas and
In an attempt to become thought of as healthier, soda
companies have diversified into non-carbonated beverages and diet sodas. While
these are an improvement in some ways, they are hardly a solution to the
First off, most juices
and other caloric non-soda alternatives are mainly just sugar and water without
the carbonation. A quick label comparison between a commercial orange juice and
a Mountain Dew would show a similar "bottom line" with regards to calories and
sugar. The only improvement would be the lack of the non-caloric offenders.
But that's no small matter, as the true effects of
these ingredients have not been thoroughly studied. Despite their no-calorie
status, diet sodas have been linked to assorted illnesses. There is no good
science on this yet but my own anecdotal evidence is, so far, 100% accurate.
I've yet to have a client not lose weight by kicking diet soda. Granted, all of
my clients drank an excessive amount, but regardless, there is little doubt
that the pH balance of diet sodas hinders the body's ability to absorb
nutrients. One client, a female athlete, lost 15 pounds by making no other
dietary change but eliminating diet soda. Fifteen pounds and zero caloriesmore
weird science. The bottom line to all this is that, for best results, your body
would be happier if you cut most of the calories out of your liquids and cut
out soft drinkscaloric or notaltogether.
How can you
In my world, soft drinks would come with the same type of
regulatory language as cigarettes and booze, at least. Actually, in my world
we'd all be educated and wouldn't require this language at all, but that's
politics 911, not nutrition 911. Anyway, here are five ways you can help
educate the public about the dangers of soda, according to the Center for
Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Contact your local government officials
and/or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and suggest that:
- National and local governments should require
chain restaurants to declare the calorie content of soft drinks and all other
items on menus and menu boards.
The FDA should require labels
on non-diet soft drinks to state that frequent consumption of those drinks
promotes obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, osteoporosis, and other health
Local, state, and federal
governments should provide water fountains in schools, government buildings,
parks, and other public spaces.
School systems and other
organizations catering to children should stop selling soft drinks (as well as
candy and other junk foods) in hallways, shops, and cafeterias.
State and local governments
should consider levying small taxes on soft drinks, with the revenues earmarked
for promoting health and fitness. A national 2-cent tax on a can of soda pop
would raise $3 billion annually.