Sugary Drinks May Put Even Thin People at Higher Risk of Diabetes

Sugar: It tastes so good, and is so bad for you. It rots your teeth, makes you gain weight, might contribute to depression and, as recent evidence suggests, puts you at greater risk of diabetes, even if you’re thin, young and active.

Obesity has long been recognized as a leading risk factor for developing Type 2 diabetes, but apart from other lifestyle choices that also increase your risk, sugary drinks now seem to be a particularly poor choice for even more people, especially if you drink them frequently.

As explained on NPR, a study recently published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that people who consumed only one sugar-sweetened beverage (soda, sweet tea, etc.) every day had an 18% higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes over the next decade compared with people who didn’t drink them.

The study reviewed data from 17 previously published studies that had evaluated the link between sugary drinks and diabetes risk.

The latest analysis is considered significant because after the researchers adjusted their estimates for body weight, they discovered that one sugary drink per day was associated with a 13% increased risk even if the subjects were thin or of normal weight.

“So even if people are lean, if they continue consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, they have a greater likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes,” study author Fumiaki Imamura, of the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, told NPR.

But there is one important consideration: Because the studies reviewed were observational – that is, they weren’t controlled, clinical trials – they don’t prove cause and effect. They show only an association. (See our blog on the difference between causation and correlation.)

Still, the link between sugary drinks and diabetes is solid, because researchers know that too much sugar can overwork the biological mechanism of endocrine system, which produces hormones and regulates metabolism. Diabetes is a metabolic disorder in which the body’s inability to produce proper amounts of the hormone insulin causes elevated levels of glucose in the blood.

If you think drinking diet beverages saves you from this statistical concern, maybe not: “The new BMJ study,” according to NPR, “also points toward an association between artificially sweetened drinks and a higher risk of diabetes, as well as fruit juices, but the evidence wasn’t strong enough to make a solid conclusion. The authors say that these drinks ‘seemed not to be healthy options for the prevention of Type 2 diabetes.'”

That’s not really news, as other studies have identified was has become known as the “diet-soda paradox.” That refers to the significant link between diet soda consumption and weight gain over time. So if you’re trying to lose weight (and lower your risk of diabetes, stroke, arthritis and other disorders being heavy can promote) by drinking only artificially sweetened beverages, that strategy has not been shown to be widely successful.

“People gaining excessive weight might switch to diet drinks and still get diabetes because of their other risk factors,” David Ludwig told NPR. He’s director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.

The BMJ researchers estimated that if Americans gave up their daily sugary drink habit, 2 million cases of diabetes could be prevented by 2020.

To learn more about the perils of excess sugar and how what you eat and drink affects your health, see Patrick’s newsletter about bad food advice and good eating habits.

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