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Eliminating Sweet Drinks and Processed Foods Is a Powerful Strategy for Improving Your Health

Story at-a-glance -

  • Eliminating sweet beverages and all processed foods are the two most powerful strategies you can implement to take control of your health
  • If you’re healthy, keep your fructose consumption below 25 grams per day. If you have signs of insulin resistance, consider limiting your total fructose to 15 grams per day until your condition has resolved
  • Both nutrition groups and teachers associations have recently come under fire for forming embarrassingly inappropriate partnerships with the junk food and soda industry

By Dr. Mercola

If you want to be optimally healthy, the two most effective strategies I know of are to eliminate all processed foods and replace sodas and juices with pure water.

I believe the reason so many suffer with excess weight, insulin resistance, and associated metabolic health related problems is because most of the foods they buy are heavily processed.

While it may seem more convenient than cooking from scratch using whole ingredients, processed foods contain an array of added ingredients that do absolutely nothing good for your health.

Added sugars, especially processed high fructose corn syrup, and toxic GMO herbicides like glyphosate, recognized as a probable carcinogen, are found in most processed foods.

The First Step Toward Improved Health: Ditching Soda and Sweet Drinks

If eliminating processed foods seems too daunting, starting out first by removing soda and other sweetened beverages (including fruit juices), can go a long way toward reducing the sugar load that is driving the disease process.

CNN1 recently highlighted the sugar content of various beverages, and it can be rather sobering to realize just how much sugar you're consuming each day from drinks alone.

Ideally, if you're healthy, you'll want to keep your fructose consumption below 25 grams per day. If you have signs of insulin resistance, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease, you'd be wise to limit your total fructose to 15 grams per day until your condition has resolved.

One 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola or Pepsi contains 65 grams and 69 grams of sugar respectively. A 15.2 ounce bottle of Minute Maid's 100% apple juice contains 49 grams of sugar, and 16 ounces of SunnyD has 28 grams...

It's really important to realize that if you drink sweetened beverages, you're virtually guaranteed to exceed the daily recommended allowance for sugar—and by a rather significant margin, too. Unfortunately, getting this message out has been difficult.

As noted in a recent study2 from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at University of Connecticut, parents have been grossly misled by marketing and labeling, and have failed to get the message that sweetened drinks are just as hazardous to their children's health as soda.

While soda sales have slowly dwindled over the past 10 years,3,4 many are simply switching to energy drinks, sports drinks, and juices instead, not realizing that these too are just as detrimental because it is just sugar in a different format and flavor.

Don't Fall for the 'Diet' Lie

As you're turning your back on sweetened drinks, avoid the mistake of replacing it with artificially sweetened no- or low-calorie varieties.

An ever-growing list of studies have firmly refuted the soda industry's "diet" claims, showing that artificial sweeteners actually promote weight gain,5 and lead to the exact same health problems as added sugars, including a heightened risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In one of the most recent studies,6,7,8,9,10,11 researchers found a "striking dose-response relationship" between diet soda consumption and waist circumference among seniors, which is associated with an increased risk for diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, just to name a few.

People who never drank diet soda increased their waist circumference by an average of 0.8 inches during the nine-year observation period. Occasional diet soda drinkers added an average of 1.83 inches to their waist line.

Daily diet soda drinkers gained an average of nearly 3.2 inches—quadruple that of those who abstained from diet soda altogether. What's worse, abdominal fat gain was most pronounced in those who were overweight to begin with. According to senior author Dr. Helen Hazuda:12

"People who are already at cardiometabolic risk because they have higher BMIs are really in double or triple jeopardy. When they think they're doing something good by drinking artificially sweetened beverages, it's actually totally counterproductive." [Emphasis mine]

In an earlier study, diet soda drinkers had a 70 percent greater increase in waist size compared to non-diet soda drinkers over a 10-year period. Those who drank two or more diet sodas a day had a 500 percent greater increase in waist size.

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The Word 'Diet' Doesn't Really Mean It'll Help You Shed Weight...

It's worth noting that the only reason many foods and beverages are permitted to be called "diet" is because of a legal exemption in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Title 21.13 Section 101.13 (q)(2) states that:

"A soft drink that used the term diet as part of its brand name before October 25, 1989, and whose use of that term was in compliance with § 105.66 of this chapter as that regulation appeared in the Code of Federal Regulations on that date, may continue to use that term as part of its brand name, provided that its use of the term is not false or misleading under section 403(a) of the act..."

The word "diet" on the label provides no assurance that it will help you lose weight, and I have previously argued that diet soda manufacturers are engaging in false advertising, considering the voluminous scientific data showing that artificially sweetened drinks actually make weight gain more likely, not less.

Can You Trust Many Nutrition Groups?

Based on the evidence, I would say the answer to that question is no, as a general rule you cannot. Nutrition groups are heavily influenced by the junk food and soda industry, and many of these partnerships are flat out embarrassing. There clearly are some trustworthy ones, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Case in point: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has been working with Kraft Foods, and was going to allow Kraft to use the academy's "Kids Eat Right" logo on packages of Kraft Singles cheese—which is about as processed a cheese as you can get. 

According to the New York Times,14 the academy is now backpedaling and has decided to end the deal after facing "a mutiny among some of the 75,000 registered dietitians and other food professionals who are its members," adding:

"[T]he organization said the program was already so advanced that it could not be changed immediately... We are working with Kraft to limit the time it remains on shelves," the academy said...

Andy Bellatti, a founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group started by dietitians who questioned the academy's strong ties to the food industry, said he was pleased that it was working to change its deal with Kraft. 'Hopefully, this is the beginning of much-needed and much-overdue dialogue on the academy's corporate sponsorships,' Mr. Bellatti said. 'Dietitians need to continue advocating for an organization that represents us with integrity and that we can be proud of, rather than continually have to apologize for.'"

Another case in point: The American Federation of Teachers recently signed a partnership agreement with the Coca-Cola Company15—an agreement that, according to consumer group US Right to Know,16 "will undermine the authority of teachers nationwide." The agreement revolves around the mitigation of child labor in the sugar cane harvest. But as noted by the US Right to Know, Coca-Cola is hardly an appropriate partner for the American Federation of Teachers, considering the fact that Coca-Cola is aggressively targeting youngsters in their advertising, and its products are a major driver of epidemic obesity and type 2 diabetes among American children.

It's also worth noting that the American Federation of Teachers initiated a boycott against Coca-Cola in October 2014, "based upon a litany of violations of workers' rights and child labor laws on the part of the company." This new partnership agreement ends that boycott.17 But does it really mean that Coca-Cola is now firmly committed to human rights, and more importantly, human health? I leave that for you to ponder.

Distrust of 'Big Food' Is Growing

The processed food industry is collapsing, albeit slowly. As noted by Campbell Soup CEO Denise Morrison, consumers no longer trust big food makers, and changing preferences are being felt among many of the processed food giants. Time Magazine18 recently reported that: "Campbell is by no means the only food maker struggling to adapt to new consumer behavior. Last week, cereal maker Kellogg cut its long-term annual revenue growth estimate to a range of 1% to 3%, excluding some items, from an earlier forecast of 3% to 4%, citing poor cereal and snacks sales."

This is clear evidence that voting with your pocketbook works. The industry knows their flagships are sinking and you can rest assured that they'll fight tooth and nail to maintain their market shares as best they can. But as people get increasingly savvy about what's really healthy and what's not, smart ads may not be enough, as more people are starting to realize that ads are not public service announcements—they're typically misleading, and sometimes flat out false when considered from a perspective of nutritional science.

Make a Pledge to Quit Processed Foods

Research coming out of some of America's most respected institutions confirms that added sugars (primarily refined sugar and processed fructose) are a primary dietary factor driving chronic disease development. So far, scientific studies have linked excessive fructose consumption to about 78 different diseases and health problems,19 including heart disease and cancer. And it doesn't matter whether that sugar comes from food staples like soup and sauces, or cookies and candy. Your body treats it all the same.

Ever since the saturated fat myth was born, processed food makers have removed the healthy fat and replaced it with sugar, and reading food labels can be an eye-opening experience. You think you're making a healthy dinner, but in reality you could be serving your family dozens of teaspoons of sugar once all the sources are added together... If you struggle with weight and/or health issues, replacing processed foods and beverages with unadulterated, whole, and ideally organic foods, along with pure water for drinking, you would be well on your way toward improving your health.

Consider Intermittent Fasting

Fasting also has a number of health benefits that most people seek: from improved cardiovascular health and reduced cancer risk, to gene repair and longevity. It's also one of the most effective ways to shed unwanted weight and resolve insulin resistance. The version of intermittent fasting I recommend and personally use involves restricting your daily eating to a specific window of time, such as an eight hour window. Compliance is always a critical factor in any of these approaches and it seems this is one of the easiest intermittent fasting schedules to implement. It's actually quite easy to comply with once your body has shifted over from burning sugar to burning fat as its primary fuel.

I recommend maintaining this eating schedule until your insulin/leptin resistance improves (weight, blood pressure, cholesterol ratios, or diabetes normalizes). After that, go back to it as often as you need to maintain your healthy state. Intermittent fasting is appropriate for most people, but if you're hypoglycemic or diabetic, you need to be cautious. People that would be best served to avoid fasting include those living with chronic stress (adrenal fatigue), and those with cortisol dysregulation. Pregnant or nursing mothers should also avoid fasting. Your baby needs plenty of nutrients, during and after birth, and there's no research supporting fasting during this important time.

My recommendation would be to really focus on improving your nutrition instead. A diet with plenty of raw organic foods and foods high in healthy fats, coupled with high-quality proteins, will give your baby a head start on good health. You'll also want to be sure to include plenty of cultured and fermented foods to optimize your—and consequently your baby's—gut flora. For more information, please see this previous article that includes specific dietary recommendations for a healthy pregnancy, as well as my interview with Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride.

Wholesome Food Sources

As a general rule, a diet that promotes health is high in healthy fats and very, very low in sugar and non-vegetable carbohydrates, along with a moderate amount of high-quality protein. For more specifics, please review my free optimized nutrition plan, which also includes exercise recommendations, starting at the beginner's level and going all the way up to advanced. Organic foods are generally preferable, as this also cuts down on your pesticide and GMO exposure. Keep in mind that if you're doing intermittent fasting, the quality of your food becomes even more important, not less so. If you're unsure of where to find wholesome local food, the following organizations can help:

  • Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  • Eat Wild: With more than 1,400 pasture-based farms, Eatwild's Directory of Farms is one of the most comprehensive sources for grass-fed meat and dairy products in the United States and Canada.
  • Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
  • Eat Well Guide: Wherever you are, Eat Well -- The Guide is a free online directory of more than 25,000 restaurants, farms, stores, farmers' markets, CSAs, and other sources of local, sustainably produced food throughout the US.
  • FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you.