You may watch what you eat in Dallas, Houston or anywhere else in Texas. But do you watch what you drink? A number of health problems, including tooth decay, thinning bones, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, cancer and obesity are linked to the beverages you drink.
In 2006, the Unilever Health Institute in the Netherlands – Unilever owns Lipton Tea – sponsored a panel of nutrition and health experts who published a study, “Beverage Guidance System.” This study was developed to help individuals reduce the amount of calories they are drinking when those calories contribute little or nothing to their health and, in many cases, may actually detract from it.
The panel, led by Barry M. Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina, was concerned by the contribution popular drinks make to weight problems. Panel experts also reviewed 146 published reports to find the best evidence for the health problems from various beverages.
At the top of the heap of preferred beverages is water. It has no calories or hazards, just benefits. But the panel expressed concerns about bottled water fortified with nutrients, implying that some individuals may think they don’t need to eat certain nutrient-fortified foods that contain substances like fiber and phytochemicals, which are lacking in some bottled waters.
Aaahh, The Sweet Nectar of Life
The panel also reported that approximately 21 percent of calories consumed by Texans, and other individuals, over the age of two comes from beverages, mostly soft drinks and fruit drinks with added sugars. There’s been an incredible increase in sugar-sweetened drinks in recent decades, primarily at the expense of milk, which, in comparison, has a number of nutritional benefits. The calories from sweetened sodas and fruit drinks account for half the rise in caloric intake by Americans since the late 1970s.
Americans are not only drinking more sweet beverages, but serving sizes have also bloated, with some restaurants and convenience stores offering 32 ounces servings as well as free refills.
And throw in America’s recent thirst for smoothies and sweetened coffee drinks – 240 calories in a 16-ounce Starbucks Caffe Mocha without the whipped cream – and it’s easy to see why people are drinking themselves into stretch pants with elastic waistbands.
But calories from sweet drinks are not the only problem. In a report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it’s cited that beverages have “weak satiety properties.” In other words, they do little or nothing to curb an individual’s appetite. As a result, people do not compensate for the calories they drink by eating less.
In addition, some soft drinks contribute to other health problems. The American Academy of General Dentistry says that non-cola carbonated beverages and bottled or canned sweetened iced tea harm tooth enamel, especially when they’re consumed alone, without a meal. And a study of 2,500 adults in Massachusetts linked cola drinking, both regular and diet, to the thinning of hipbones in women.
The panel suggests that if individuals drink something sweet, they should sip a no-calorie beverage like diet soda that includes an approved sweetener, although many experts have recognized the lack of long-term safety data and the possibility that these diet sodas “condition” people to prefer sweetness.
Fruit juices are another alternative, but not nearly as good as whole fruits, which satisfy hunger better.
Coffee, Tea and You
Here’s a chance to tip your cup at some good news. Several newer studies have linked regular coffee consumption to a reduced risk of developing Type-2 diabetes, colorectal cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
Most studies don’t link a high intake of coffee or caffeine to heart disease, although caffeinated coffee raises blood pressure somewhat and boiled unfiltered coffee – French-pressed and espresso – raises harmful LDL and total cholesterol levels.
On its own, caffeine – up to 400 milligrams a day, or the amount in about 30 ounces of brewed coffee – doesn’t seem to be a health problem or affect water balance in the body. But pregnant women should limit their intake because more than 300 milligrams of caffeine a day might increase the risk of miscarriage and low birth weight, the panel reported.
There also seems to be good news on the brain front regarding caffeine. Mice prone to an Alzheimer’s-like disease were protected by drinking water spiked with caffeine equivalent to what people get from five cups of coffee a day. And a study of more than 600 men suggested that drinking three cups of coffee a day protects against age-related memory and thinking deficits.
For tea, the evidence on health benefits is somewhat uncertain. Tea lowers cancer risk in experimental animals, but the effects in individuals are unknown. Tea may benefit bone density and help prevent kidney stones and tooth decay. And four or five cups of black tea daily helps arteries expand, possibly improving blood flow to the heart.
A Drink a Day May Keep the Doctor Away.
Moderate consumption of alcohol – one drink a day for women and two for men – has been linked in many large, long-term studies to lower mortality rates, especially from heart attacks and strokes. It may also lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes and gallstones. The panel found no convincing evidence that, for example, a glass of red wine is better than a vodka rocks with a twist.
But even moderate alcohol consumption has its downside. Moderate intake can raise the risk of birth defects and breast cancer, because it may interfere with essential B vitamins. And, of course, heavy alcohol consumption is associated with several lethal cancers, cirrhosis of the liver, hemorrhagic stroke, hypertension, dementia and some forms of heart disease.
Milk and Soy Drinks.
The panel, which rated low-fat and skim milk third, just below water and coffee and tea, said that dairy drinks were not essential to a healthy diet. The panel did acknowledge the benefits of milk for bone density, while noting that the calcium and vitamin D benefits to bones are not maintained unless people continue to drink milk. Other essential nutrients in milk include magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, vitamin A, riboflavin, folate and protein, approximately eight grams per eight-ounce glass. A 10-year study of overweight individuals found that milk drinkers were less likely to develop metabolic syndrome, which is a group of coronary risk factors that includes hypertension and low levels of protective HDLs.
The panel did emphasize the need for children and teenagers to drink more milk and fewer high-calorie, sweetened drinks. The report stated that fortified soymilk is a good alternative for individuals who prefer not to consume cow milk. But the panel cautioned that soymilk cannot be legally fortified with vitamin D and provides only 75 percent of the calcium the body gets from cow’s milk.