Chew On This: 08/25

More than a study’s findings about soda

By Jayne Powers

Food pairings have earned their reputations: bread and butter, wine and cheese, soda and fries.

By themselves, each one has pros and cons. Bread, for instance, can be a great source of fiber and whole grains, and butter, well, it has been criticized for containing saturated fats, which is true because butter comes from an animal, and animal fat is what it is—saturated—meaning it does bad things to your cholesterol.

With wine, we rationalize our intake because red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant believed to be heart-healthy. (It is part of the increasingly popular Mediterranean diet and one touted by many health experts.)

While I’m struggling to come up with good things to say about fries other than they taste good when they’re not soggy, there is increasing evidence that soda can be both good and bad for you.

A study published in a recent edition of the American Journal of Health Promotion found that the risk of gaining weight increases “significantly” when middle-aged women drank a sugar-sweetened soft drink, which is only a sliver of the sugar-sweetened beverage market, a category that includes sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened teas and fruit drinks.

That finding is a snapshot of what researchers are trying to identify as the feeders of a healthy life. It doesn’t paint the big picture.

That’s what I hope to do for you in this column.

Let’s start with more details about the study. It tracked 170 healthy women, ages 35 to 45, who were recruited from cities in Wyoming and Utah to participate in the four-year study.

The amount of weight gain—5.9 pounds—was significantly higher for women who drank a sugary soda compared to those who reached for an artificially sweetened drink over that time frame. Weight gain for the diet or no-soda group averaged 1 pound over four years.

And that was the good thing that the study said about soda, leading the researchers to conclude that artificially sweetened soft drinks, or none at all, may be a “sensible strategy” to reduce the risk of weight gain over time.

The study also made some broad observations. For example, it noted that women who consumed artificially sweetened soft drinks may have been more health conscious than their peers, which may have resulted in lifestyle differences.

The researchers also pointed out that the participants were primarily Caucasian, educated and non-smokers. In research land, that means that the findings wouldn’t apply to the U.S. population at large, which we all know is a stew of ethnicities, not to mention gender and age differences.

Moreover, the study was not a randomized clinical trial, which means it doesn’t prove cause and effect, that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages causes weight gain.

But that doesn’t mean that the study doesn’t have value. Placed in a larger context (and here’s my rant), I think the study has merit in terms of lifestyle choices, and the word “lifestyle” seems to be the buzzword these days when it comes to leading a healthful life.

That is the takeaway I’d like to impress upon you. Losing or maintaining weight is not simply a matter of cutting out a sugary drink or anything else because of a study’s findings.

It’s whether we eat a variety of foods known to reduce the risk of chronic conditions, such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and obesity. It’s also whether we engage in a physical activity program that is consistent and suitable for our health goals.

Not everyone is seeking to lose weight. I work with a lot of seniors who can’t get out of a chair because they’ve lost the strength in their muscles and now require a cane or walker.

Some also have arthritis, so bad it inhibits not only their range of movement but their mobility. For whatever reason—fear of surgery, recovery or both—they appear to have made the decision to hurt for the time being.

That’s how it appears to me after talking to them about their decision.

While that wouldn’t be a decision I’d make for myself, even if insurance actuaries predicted I had 10 more years to live, there are others who choose to, what I call, settle in ways that negatively affect their long-term health, happiness and overall wellness.

So, the beverage study and others that knock or promote what we fuel our bodies with all relate to lifestyle choices that will either extend our journey through life or cut it short.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to eat and drink well to stay well—and move. I believe that is real simple advice we should all live by.


Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at, or email your fitness questions to

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Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at

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