Here’s How Soda Really Affects Your Body, Says Dietitian
Can drinking soda really be that bad for you? Unfortunately, the news still isn’t good. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that sugar-sweetened beverages are the leading source of added sugar intake for Americans. 63% of adults aged 18 and older report drinking sugar-sweetened beverages (meaning drinks sweetened with added sugars such as high-fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, dextrose, sucrose, and more) once a day, if not more. The CDC points out that consumption of these drinks not only leads to developing other unhealthy habits — such as too much time in front of a screen, or not enough exercise and sleep — but has also been associated with a myriad of chronic diseases.
Yet how exactly does drinking a sugar-sweetened beverage (like soda) affect the body when consumed? We consulted registered dietitian Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, author of The Sports Nutrition Playbook to discuss the intricacies of consuming soda on a regular basis, along with some healthy pointers to keep in mind if you still love cracking open a can.
Soda increases added sugar intake.
According to Goodson, “sugar-sweetened beverages are the biggest providers of added sugar in the American diet,” and oftentimes foods with lots of sugar also tend to be low in nutrients, not providing much for your overall health.
“One of the biggest challenges with soda is that it is a sugar-sweetened beverage and provides lots of added sugars to the diet with no nutritional benefit,” says Goodson. “On average a can of soda has about 39 grams of sugar and 140 calories, while a 20 bottle of soda contains approximately 65 grams of sugar (some even more!) and 240 calories.”
Goodson points out that consuming this much sugar can cause blood glucose spikes, and inevitable blood sugar drops — aka a “crash” — that will leave you craving more sugar later. “This can become a vicious cycle of sugar highs and lows, ultimately leading to people craving sugar on a regular basis.”
In a recent 2022 study review, researchers concluded that not only is drinking sugar-sweetened beverages linked to increased cravings and weight gain, but also increases the risk of developing diseases including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake to no more than 6% of your daily calories to mitigate disease risk. For men, that’s typically 150 calories (nine teaspoons, 36 grams), and for women, that’s 100 calories (six teaspoons, 25 grams).
Related: What Are the Best Sugar Substitutes?
It can cause energy slumps.
The inevitable spikes and crashes due to consuming so much sugar in the soda not only increases cravings, but also messes with your overall energy levels throughout the day.
“While many people use soda as a ‘pick-me-up,’ it oftentimes can you leave you feeling down shortly after, causing you to want more sugar,” says Goodson.
Even though having some sugar in the diet is okay — especially in the form of fruits, whole grains, and even antioxidant-rich dark chocolate — too much of it at once can wreak havoc on your energy levels. According to Sanford Health, a sugar crash happens after consuming large amounts of carbohydrates (which converts to glucose in the body once consumed). Heavy amounts of simple carbohydrates can do this to the body, as well as simple sugars found in desserts and soda, which can digest quickly and cause an elevated release of energy (the spike) and dip in energy (the crash). During a crash, most people will feel their productivity and concentration falter, along with feelings of confusion and even the inability to perform routine tasks.
It may cause bloating.
A high intake of sugar isn’t the only cause for concern when drinking soda. Goodson also points out that for some, drinking beverages with high carbonation — like most sodas — can contribute to bloating and gastrointestinal issues.
“The carbonation gas can get trapped in the gut and cause some uncomfortable feelings leading to burping and bloating,” says Goodson.
The severity of this, however, depends if the consumer has had previous gastrointestinal issues. Carbonation is a beverage that has been known to lead to irritable bowel syndrome flare-ups. For those without diagnosed conditions, previous research shows consuming over 300 milliliters (10 fluid ounces) may cause gastrointestinal distress for some, but more research needs to be done to confirm how this affects digestion.
Is it possible to still enjoy soda and stay healthy?
If you love to crack open a sweet-tasting beverage, especially on a hot day, Goodson says there are plenty of healthier soda alternatives out there that can still hit the spot.
“Twists on soda like OLIPOP are great alternatives to traditional soda,” she explains. “With only 2 to 5 grams of sugar per can, it’s a ‘better-for-you’ soda that boasts the added benefit [for the] microbiome and digestive health support. In fact, each can of OLIPOP contains 9 grams of plant fiber! Considering the dietary recommendation for fiber is 25 to 38 grams per day, one can of OLIPOP can help provide a third of your daily fiber needs.”
If you’re one that doesn’t deal with uncomfortable bloating with carbonated beverages, Goodson says that other sparkling water beverages can also serve as a good alternative. “It provides bubbles and flavor, but without all the added sugar.”
But what if you love regular soda? Soda tends to be a go-to drink for many in particular circumstances; especially for those looking for a “fun” beverage if they aren’t drinking alcohol. Goodson suggests that if you are going to drink a normal sugar-sweetened beverage (soda, or any other sweet beverage with sugar), consider having it as a once-a-week treat.