Yes, Sugary Drinks Actually Prime the Body to Store More Fat—Here’s Why

You may want to think twice before popping the top on that can of soda or heading to Happy Hour.

PVJ/ShutterstockIce-cold soda or a smooth cocktail may taste delicious, but new research may get you rethinking your beverage choice. According to findings in the open access journal, BMC Nutrition, having a sugary drink with a meal high in protein (which most are, here in the U.S.), may actually prime your body to store extra fat.

We already have many reasons to avoid soda, but this new research adds a new wrinkle: It’s not just the sugar or calories that widens your waist, but its negative impact on your body’s energy balance, which changes your food preferences and causes your body to store more fat. According to lead study author Dr. Shanon Casperson, from the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center, the body doesn’t burn about a third of the additional calories in sweetened drinks, reducing fat metabolism and causing the body to use less energy to metabolize the meal. This “decreased metabolism efficiency” leads to the body storing more fat.

For the study, researchers looked at 27 healthy weight adults (13 males, 14 females) with an average age of 23. Study participants were required to make two 24-hour study visits, eating two 15 percent protein meals for breakfast and lunch, following an overnight fast on one visit and following two 30 percent protein meals after an overnight fast on a subsequent visit. Their meals were made up of the same foods, including 17g of fat and 500 calories. They were given a sugar-sweetened drink with one meal and a non-sugar sweetened drink with their other meal.

Researchers found that the sugary drink slowed fat oxidation, the mechanism that kick-starts the breakdown of fat molecules. When participants drank a sugar-sweetened drink along with their 15 percent protein meal, fat oxidation decreased by an average of 7.2g. When they drank a sugar-sweetened drink along with their 30 percent protein meal, fat oxidation decreased by an average of 12.6 grams. Even though having a sugar-sweetened drink increased the amount of energy needed for metabolism, the increased expenditure did not even out the consumption of additional calories from the drink. What’s more, the combination of a sugary drink with a high-protein meal caused participants to crave savory and salty foods for four hours after eating.

“Our findings suggest that having a sugar-sweetened drink with a meal impacts both sides of the energy balance equation,” Dr. Casperson told EurekAlert! “On the intake side, the additional energy from the drink did not make people feel more sated. On the expenditure side, the additional calories were not expended and fat oxidation was reduced. The results provide further insight into the potential role of sugar-sweetened drinks—the largest single source of sugar in the American diet—in weight gain and obesity.”

Before you swear off sugary drinks forever, note two limitations of the study: It looked only at participants over a short period of time and involved only participants of a healthy weight, so there may be a different response in people who are overweight.

Still, it can’t hurt to try out some zero-calorie, all-natural drinks that could replace your favorite sugary beverage.

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