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October 09, 2023

Why drinking soda is bad for your health – and how to quit

The sugar-filled drink can lead to obesity, diabetes and other adverse conditions. Cutting back can be hard, but dietitians say there are several ways to do it

Healthy Eating Soda
soda health effects Madalyn Cox/

Regularly drinking soda is linked to many adverse health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease. But dietitians recommend several ways to cut back on sugary drinks.

Soda has long been a staple of American culture, but the fizzy caffeinated beverage is considered among the least healthy drinks out there.

Soda is a sugar-sweetened beverage, meaning it contains added sugar or other sweeteners, and it provides consumers with many calories but virtually zero nutrients. Sugar-sweetened beverages, an umbrella term that also includes lemonade, iced tea and energy drinks, are the leading sources of added sugar in Americans' diets and can cause many adverse health effects, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Routinely drinking sugary drinks is associated with weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease and gout, according to the CDC. The acidity levels in soda also can erode the body's calcium, which can lead to weakening bones and tooth decay.

"The most important thing that people need to realize is, especially as it relates to soda, is the bone mineral density — because an acidic environment, which will happen with soda, can actually erode your calcium because it disrupts the calcium absorption in the bones," said Evelyn Arteche, an outpatient dietitian at Cooper University Hospital in Camden. "And so that's one of the main reasons why you shouldn't drink soda."

Along with protecting against harmful conditions, quitting soda may provide some health benefits.

"If you do start to cut back on how much soda you're drinking, you'll start to see you might be sleeping a lot better, because you're not having that excess caffeine," said Darien Dempsey, a clinical dietitian at Temple University Hospital. "It can help with improving your energy, just because now you're getting your natural energy through foods, and not getting those sugar highs, what we call, where you're kind of getting this really increased energy and then crashing. All of a sudden, you'll start to have a very prolonged energy level that doesn't wean and wax."

Ditching soda also can improve teeth whiteness, heart health and hydration, Dempsey said.

With these effects in mind, health officials generally suggest limiting sugary drink intake, although cutting cola can be easier said than done for people who enjoy it daily.

How to quit drinking soda

"I do have patients that have drank a ton of soda," Arteche said. "And asking them to give it up cold turkey without actually backing off is difficult. So I do encourage them, though — especially if they have other medical issues that maybe the soda isn't helping with, such as diabetes, and obesity, and a fatty liver. Those are some of the reasons why I would tell someone that they really should consider giving up soda, being cognizant of the fact that it's not going to be easy to get rid of it if you're severely addicted to it."

One way to quit is to gradually cut back on the amount consumed.

"I would recommend just starting by reducing the amount you drink," Dempsey said. "So if you usually have two cans per day, just start with aiming for one can per day. Then when you achieve that goal, do half a can per day. And then hopefully, that's how you're weaning yourself off of it." 

People don't have to completely cut out soda, Dempsey said. But it should be more of a special treat than a continuous thirst-quencher and it should be accompanied by water for hydration purposes.

"It should just be more of, you know, you're drinking your soda because you went out to dinner with your family to celebrate, you know, kind of as a special treat – not your everyday go-to beverage," Dempsey said.

One of the popular methods to quit soda is the "Three Rs," which stand for reduce, remove or replace, according to Colleen Tewksbury, a registered dietitian with Penn Medicine.

"'Reduce' could be just starting to cut back on portions or limiting how many times per week you're having your sugar sweetened beverages," Tewksbury said. "'Replace' is finding an adequate replacement ... or completely 'remove'; just cut it out altogether, and not replace it with something. That is also a viable option, but none of those are better than another for everybody. They're all goals that work well. It's just figuring out which one works best for you individually."

People looking to enact the "replace" method can choose from a plethora of other beverages, but some options are considered healthier than others.

Alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines recommend people drink beverages that are calorie-free, like water, or contribute beneficial nutrients — like fat-free milk, low-fat milk or 100% fruit juice. In general, the USDA suggests that Americans age 2 and older keep their intake of added sugars to less than 10% of their total daily calories. According to the USDA, though, added sugars account for about 13% of total daily calories per day for the average person.

Some people turn to diet soda to lessen their intake of added sugars, but many diet sodas contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener that has divided health officials on its safety. Aspartame was labeled a "possible carcinogen" by the World Health Organization's International Research Agency on Cancer in July. But the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has said for years that aspartame is a safe ingredient for people to consume in moderation. The FDA also called the WHO's designation for aspartame misleading, saying the sweetener may not actually cause cancer.

"Now there is some research, mainly in lab, showing that there may be some effects from a gut health standpoint for some people with diet sodas, or other diet beverages," Tewksbury said. "But it is not something that has, from a research standpoint, greatly changed our general recommendations. So non-nutritive (artificial) sweeteners are generally recognized as safe. Most research has shown that they're actually a really effective tool to help reduce sugar sweetened beverages. And something that, when in moderation, can be a helpful tool for people looking to reduce sugar or looking to reduce calorie intake."

There are also prebiotic sodas, like Olipop and Poppi, that tout themselves as healthy alternatives to traditional soft drinks because they contain less sugar and claim to boost digestive health. But health experts say more research is needed to verify claims that they actually benefit gut health.

"(If prebiotic sodas are) helping them reach their overarching nutritional goals for themselves individually, that's fantastic," Tewksbury said. "We wouldn't explicitly recommend that someone add these in for health purposes. They haven't been shown to have that large of a benefit that we would explicitly encourage people to consume them. But we wouldn't discourage helping them work toward their their overarching goals."

When trying out a new prebiotic soda brand, it's important to check out the ingredients.

"I would recommend if someone's going to try a different brand, trying to look at that nutrition label on the can," Dempsey said. "And when we're looking at that label, we want to have our added sugars be as little to none as possible. ... And of course, I would be mindful of how much sodium is in the drink as well. We also don't want that to be too high, either, just for your heart health and health in general."

Aside from prebiotic and diet sodas, there are some other fizzy alternatives that health professionals agree are ideal. Namely, sparkling, mineral or seltzer waters are healthier choices for people who enjoy the carbonation of soda.

"Seltzer or mineral water; mineral water being the best because it's naturally carbonated," Arteche said. "And if it's plain, you can always flavor with a little bit of fruit juice or something, like cucumber, which is a very alkaline food and it helps the pH in the body."

People who are addicted to the caffeine content in soda may experience headaches when trying to wean themselves from soda. In that case, dietitians may recommend patients switch to coffee or tea, which generally contain less sugar, Dempsey said.

In the end, it may be beneficial for people looking to cut soda to speak with a professional to map out their individual health conditions and needs.

"There's no one beverage that's perfect for everyone," Tewksbury said. "So, if you're looking to make any of these changes, we always recommend contacting a registered dietician to talk about, 'What are your health goals? And what are your options?' ... We work and live in a challenging food environment. So helping people try to work toward achieving their health goals is not a black or white path. It's a very colorful one that requires a lot of nuance for that discussion."

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