Ice Lemon

What’s the Effect of Cutting Sugar-Sweetened Drinks?

An interesting new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association isn’t really getting the attention it deserves. It asks simple questions. What’s the effect of cutting sugar-sweetened drinks? First, does it reduce risk factors for heart disease? Second, does it bring weight loss? Finally, does it lead people to prefer less sweetness?

The outcomes are mixed.

Two Out of Three Null Findings

Cara Ebbeling, David Ludwig, and colleagues designed an excellent randomized study. But they did not get the result they wanted. Cutting sugar-sweetened drinks had no effect on cardiometabolic risk factors. None. It led to some weight loss in subgroups, but not overall.

In the end, the clearest outcome was that people who switched to unsweetened drinks developed a taste for less sweetness.

A 12-Month RCT

This is a good study. Researchers randomly assigned a total of 203 adults randomly to one of three different groups. In every group, people received supplies of drinks, delivered right to their homes, to replace the sugar-sweetened drinks they normally consumed. The control group received more of the same – sugar-sweetened beverages. Another group received artificially sweetened drinks. The third group received unsweetened drinks.

The study lasted for 12 months. Researchers measured blood levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and lipids at the start and at the end of the study. None of that changed between groups.

Not Much Effect on Body Weight

They also measured body weight. This was not a weight loss study, so the subjects were not trying to lose weight. And in fact, average weights were higher in all three groups at the end of the study. The weight gain was only significant in the sugar-sweetened drink group. But the differences between the groups were not significant overall.

Only when they drilled down to individuals with a lot of abdominal fat could these researchers find differences in weight changes between the groups. That is what you call an exploratory analysis.

Shifting Tastes

All the effort that went into this study mirrors all the energy that’s going toward pushing the population away from sugar-sweetened drinks. In this study, they found that the people who received unsweetened drinks developed less of a taste for sweetness. Likewise we see preferences growing in the population for less sweetness in our drinks.

But does fighting sugar-sweetened drinks have an effect on obesity and cardiometabolic risk? We didn’t see it in this study and we’re not seeing it in the population.

Click here for the study, here and here for other perspectives.

Ice Lemon, photograph by Theo Crazzolara, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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August 22, 2020