Pop, soda, or soda pop, which name you prefer, let's face it, is an American icon. I, like many of my patients, grew up with it and could not get enough of that ice cold blast of sugary delight hitting the back of my dry throat after playing outside on a hot summer day. Who can forget all those rainbow colored, knee-high glass bottles of soda with the delicious fruity names and flavors?
Years ago, soda was considered a once in a while treat. Today, it's become a staple in our refrigerators. Americans consume an incredible 160 gallons of soda a year! Next time you're in the check out line at the grocery store, look at how much soda people have in their baskets! Better yet, look at all the soda bottles returning – some people need several baskets just to haul them.
As I explain to my patients, our obsession with soda consumption has taken its toll on the overall health of people in the US. Bone loss issues, such as osteoporosis (loss of bone density) or osteomalacia (bone softening), and other bone diseases are growing in numbers. Add to that tooth decay and destruction of tooth enamel as well as chronic gastritis is seen now even in young teenagers.
You see, what all those enticing advertisements do not tell us is that drinking soda on a regular basis can set you up for developing obesity and type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, chronic stomach irritation, tooth decay, and a whole host of other ailments and diseases later in life.
They Taste So Great, How Can They Be So Bad?
The largest consumers of soda are 12-29 year-old males, and its consumption has tripled for boys and doubled for girls since 1978. Like everything else in America, the size of soft drink containers has gotten bigger and bigger. That petite little 6-1 / 2 ounce size of soda that I, and most of my over 40 patients used to drink as a kid, has been replaced by containers that look like something the Colossus of Rhodes would drink out of!
Like me, my patients associate soda pop with a pleasant memory from childhood like the ice cream truck or the local candy store. It's hard, then, to get their head around the idea that this seemingly innocent childhood treatment could really cause them, and their children, so many health problems. It's just sugar, flavoring and fizz right?
First of all, let's talk about the main ingredients in soda – phosphorus, sodium bicarbonate, sugar, caffeine, and what kind of health havoc they can wreak.
Phosphorus: Leeches calcium out of bones. Low blood calcium can lead to osteoporosis and damaged arteries. The two most popular colas on the market today contain a very high quantity of phosphorus and no calcium. This can create a significant problem for those of us over 40 who have trouble absorbing calcium from our diets anyway, especially menopausal women who are at higher risk for osteoporosis and fractures. It can also pose a problem in children whose bones are still growing and increase their risk of fractures dramatically. In addition, in people who consume sodas regularly, the lining of their throats and esophagus can become quite inflamed. Inflammation is now known to set the stage for serious disease to develop.
Sodium Bicarbonate: Sodium bicarbonate is used in soft drinks to make them less acidic. However, with sugar, caffeine, and phosphoric acid, there is still a lot of acid in sodas. This excess dietary acid can contribute to inflammation of the lining of your esophagus and stomach. No wonder that people who drink a lot of soda have chronic stomach irritation that goes away when they stop drinking so much. High acid content in the body can cause inflammation in joints and contribute to arthritis and even cancer.
Sugar: The average size soft drink has several tablespoons of regular table sugar in them. The larger ones have much more. If you drink a few cans of soda a day, you're consuming way more sugar than is healthy and can be contributing to obesity. The sugar and acid in soda also contributes to tooth decay and, as you get older, can put you at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. In kids all this excess sugar can also aggravate attention deficit disorder which is running rampant in kids these days.
Caffeine: If you're an adult with a healthy heart and nervous system, a little caffeine in moderation is okay and can help you feel alert and energized. Too much, however, and you will not be able to sleep, can cause heart palpitations, or bring on a bout of gastric reflux acid. Those trendy "designer" cola drinks in those slim little silver cans pack an even higher wallop of caffeine. In children, who often substitute sodas instead of a healthy drink, the caffeine consumption can overwhelm their nervous systems. Some soft drinks can contain as much caffeine in them as a cup of coffee! The caffeine jolt is just way too intense for them and can contribute to behavior problems.
Is There A Healthy Alternative To Soda?
I'm glad you asked. The answer is, yes, of course! First of all, drinking a soda here and there is okay. We need to go back to considering it a "treat" rather than the dietary staple it seems to have become. Try to limit your soda consumption like this:
• Go Free: Look for caffeine free, sugar-free soda sweetened with Splenda or sucralose. Read the labels. Leave the "aspartame" sweetened sodas alone as this chemical additive causes a whole other list of neurological problems.
In addition, consider these healthier alternatives:
• Make your own! That's right. Health food and better grocery stores now sell an array of sugar-free flavorings that you can mix with seltzer water, or just plain water, to make a refreshing and tasty soft drink without the sugar, caffeine or chemical additives that the soda companies put in .
• Switch To H20 Soft Drinks: Try adding a few slices of lemon or lime to ice water, add a little stevia, sucralose, or Xylitol powdered sweeteners found in grocery stores. Or, try adding a little real fruit juice to ice water and get a light, refreshing, chemical-free "soft" drink as well as upping your water intake. Try commercially bottled, flavored waters. Grocery stores have been selling these for several years now in flavors like tangerine, raspberry, lime, strawberry-kiwi, and many others. They are free from sugar, sodium bicarbonate, caffeine, phosphorus and really taste great cold!
• Create A Soda Bank: A good incentive for both you and your kids to kick the soda habit might be put the amount of money you would spend on soda into a bank and at the end of each month buy a special treat for all of you (not soda!) with it.
Breaking the soda pop habit can be hard, especially if you've been consuming them since childhood. They can be very addictive because of the caffeine in them, taste good when you're thirsty, and can be associated with pleasant childhood memories that make us happy. In addition, there's usually a soda vending machine almost everywhere you go luring you to grab a cold one!
However, as mentioned earlier, enjoying a soda here and there will not hurt you, especially if you remember to make sure your calcium intake is enhanced with a good supplement. Remember to stick to the sugar-free and caffeine-free type sodas. As I tell my patients who have children, it's best if you wean the whole family away from soda with one of the healthier alternatives listed above as you'll be doing everyone's bones, teeth, stomach, and weight a big favor!
Mark Rosenberg, MD
Institute For Healthy Aging