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Empty Calories

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Dana Hunnes (MPH ’07, PhD ’13), adjunct assistant professor in the Fielding School’s Department of Community Health Sciences and senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, says of soda and other sugary beverages: “There is nothing beneficial in these drinks. They’re pure sugar and chemicals.”

What is unique about soda’s role in the obesity epidemic?

If you were to chew, say, a candy bar that’s full of sugar, the chewing sensation and the cascade of digestive processes would at some point make you feel some satiety. Beverages don’t have that effect, so you can drink 400 calories of soda and not feel satiated in the way you would if you had 400 calories of food. In fact, the insulin response might make you hungrier afterward. So if you drink 400 calories of soda, you’re not going to compensate by having 400 fewer calories of food; it just adds calories to the diet.

Why are so many people drawn to these drinks?

Our bodies are meant to seek sugar and carbohydrates. If you think about how we evolved, our ancestors were more likely to survive if they could get a high dose of sugar all in one fell swoop to finance their physically taxing hunting/gathering expeditions, as opposed to scrounging around and eating vegetables all day. There are also food scientists testing different flavors and mixing to just the right level of sweetness. And when we utilize carbohydrates and our blood sugar gets low we feel hungry and want something that’s going to boost it again. Soda is a quick way of doing that. Not a healthy way, but a quick way.

How can public health more effectively address this problem?

For the most part, education hasn’t succeeded in getting people to change their behaviors when it comes to sugar-sweetened beverages — people’s daily habits are hard to break. Taxing soda and putting those tax revenues toward public health programs has demonstrated a larger impact. In Mexico, a 10 percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages led to a 12 percent reduction in sales in the first year.