The New Year oft enters cloaked in resolutions and meaningful initiatives. Too often, however, these end up discarded and crumpled, like some unwanted overcoat, on the floor in the Hallway of Good Intentions. That is why it is important to pick a few battles in which your efforts and energies can be focused. Successfully altering behaviors is one of the most difficult actions we can undertake. The more ambitious and the greater the quantity, the less likely the success. This is particularly true when those behaviors have potentially addictive underpinnings. Such is the construct of the typical modern Western diet (for a detailed description see The Fallacy of The Calorie: Why the modern Western Diet is Killing Us and How to Stop It).
Energy dense beverages are particularly egregious offenders in this category. These drinks are often sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), other sugars and may contain additional additives designed to give those who imbibe a quick blast of “energy.” Importantly, while being energy dense (read: contain lots of calories) they are invariably nutrient poor. Addictive, destructive, and without any redeeming characteristics they are truly dietary demons.
A recently completed clinical trial examined the dangers of quaffing such potable potions. The Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016 Dec 6. pii: S2212-2672(16)31293-X. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.10.011) tested prospective associations between intakes of alcohol, energy-dense beverages, and low-calorie beverages and cardiometabolic risk in midlife women. The researchers followed almost 1,500 women from six US cities over a 14-year period. The risk of developing metabolic syndrome was assessed. Metabolic syndrome is frequently labeled as “pre-diabetes.” It is associated with developing abdominal obesity or “belly fat.” It is also associated with hypertension, impaired fasting glucose, low high-density lipoprotein cholesterol level (LDL or “bad” cholesterol), and hypertriglyceridemia. Like diabetes, it is a condition born of chronic, ongoing low level inflammation and carries a similar risk for the development of cardiovascular disease and other modern maladies.
The researchers found that consumption of energy dense beverages could be separated by ethnicities. Energy dense beverage consumption was highest among African-American women and lowest among women with college degrees. Non-Hispanic white women consumed the largest quantities of alcohol.
Each 12-ounce (355ml) energy dense beverage consumed conferred a 5% increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome in the following year. Such a consumptive pattern was also associated with more rapidly increasing the risk of developing hypertension and abdominal obesity. Intakes of alcohol, coffees, and teas were not associated with increased metabolic syndrome risk.
Metabolic syndrome, diabetes and the other modern disabilities and diseases have reached staggering proportions in the US. For the first time in decades, the mortality rate for cardiovascular disease (the number one cause of death in the US and many industrialized nations) rose in 2016. Dietary choices clearly play a tremendous role determining our risk. While genetics also plays a powerful role, recent analysis suggests that no matter what genes you were born with; lifestyles modifications can reduce that risk profile by 50% or more.
What can you do if you find that you, or loved ones, are among the masses that reach zombie-like for such un-refreshments several times each day? Engage in a simple three step approach.
- Educate: Knowledge is power. Awareness is the active application of such power. Frequently, we consume food and drink in absenteeism. A reflex stop for a at the drive-thru for a mystery McRiddle (what, exactly, is that meat-like patty made from??), eating half the donut on the way to our cubicle still unaware of what the intended flavor was, or reaching mindlessly for that sweetened swig. Placing ourselves in the moment, being cognizant of what we are eating or drinking, forces a value decision. In that present moment, we confront ourselves and must honestly ask if it is indeed “worth it.”
- Alternate: Variety is one of the spices of Life. Experiment with different, but healthful options. Try teas; black, green, or herbal combinations-especially when you are in search of a calmer moment. Tea (and some herbal preparations) has been shown to stimulate the same cerebral areas associated with meditation. Try a coffee without excessive sweeteners. Juices can be an occasional option. A recent study found drinking pomegranate juice (4-8 ounces) daily as effective as a single prescription anti-hypertensive in reducing blood pressure. And we all need to drink more water, as well.
- Carbonate: Sometimes the allure is just in the fizzy. Since most of us should be consuming more plain old H2O, an easy substitution for the sugary pop is to have some plain, carbonated water. Add some citrus slices (add a splash of your favorite adult spirit and you’ve got a cocktail), other fruit or natural flavorings and you may find that in short order your saccharine cravings are a thing of the past.
Appelhaus, B., Baylin, A., Huang, M., Li, H., Janssen, I., Kazlausaite, R., . . . Kravitz, H. (2016). Beverage Intake and Metabolic Syndrome Risk Over 14 Years: The Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation. J Acad Nutr Diet. , Dec 6. pii: S2212-2672(16)31293-X. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.10.011.
Fenster, M. S. (2014). The Fallacy of The Calorie: Why the Modern Western Diet is Killing Us and How to Stop It. New York, NY: Koehler Books.