Behind the headlines

What do fizzy drinks do to your health?

Sugary drinks ilustration

Can just one fizzy drink a day increase the most dangerous type of fat in your body by 30 per cent? We analyse news coverage of this study.

​"One fizzy drink a day adds 30 per cent to body fat”, The Times declared.

​The study on which the stories were based found that middle-aged people who regularly drink sugar-sweetened fizzy drinks had 30 per cent more visceral fat in the abdomen on average. 

​This type of ‘deep’ fat wraps around internal organs such as the liver, pancreas and intestines, and increases the risk of coronary heart disease and type-two diabetes.  

Even those who drank them once a week, gained eight per cent more visceral fat chance than those who never drank them. No link was found between diet soft drinks and visceral fat.  

Be mindful of how much sugar-sweetened beverages [you] drink

Caroline Fox

​The study was published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation. Caroline Fox, Lead Study Author and Special Volunteer with the National Institutes of Health, said: “Our message to consumers is to follow the current dietary guidelines and to be mindful of how much sugar-sweetened beverages they drink.”

How the story was covered

The story was widely covered, including in The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Times, and the subject was largely treated even-handedly. However, the photograph used in The Times article online was of children sipping fizzy drinks, despite the fact the study only covered middle-aged subjects. Some of the headlines didn’t tell the full picture. The headline in the Express said “Just ONE can a day can cause you to put on 30 per cent MORE FAT” – but the study referred to visceral abdominal fat specifically, although this was then made clear in the story.

The Telegraph headline was “One can of fizzy drink a day increases risk of diabetes and heart disease”. Although fat round the organs is linked to increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, this particular study didn’t measure this.

​Strengths of the study included a fairly large number of participants – over 1,000 people, and adjusting for other factors that could have skewed the data.

Limitations were that intake of sports and energy drinks and sweetened teas, were not covered in the study, despite the fact that energy drinks can contain more sugar than a can of cola. The study also noted that overweight or obese test subjects may have underestimated their fizzy drink intake, which account for the fact that no association was found between these drinks and body weight changes. Because the study was carried out over a six-year period with test subjects monitoring their own intake, there was room for human error and fluctuating beverage consumption over the time period.

​These shortcomings, it should be stressed, by no means prove that the findings are incorrect, and the results correlate with other studies about the effects of sugary drinks on health.

What the BHF says

​The BHF’s Senior Dietician, Victoria Taylor, said “Research has shown that excessive visceral fat around the abdomen and vital organs is linked to an increased risk of heart disease. This study suggests that, as well as contributing to obesity, regularly drinking sugar sweetened drinks may also influence the amount of fat around our organs. 

​“More research is needed to confirm these findings and the reasons for them. However, this study further supports the need to take action to reduce the nation’s consumption of sugar sweetened beverages. 

​“We need to introduce a range of measures to tackle the UK’s growing obesity problem, including a 20 per cent sugary drinks tax as part of the Government’s childhood obesity strategy.”

The BHF  recommends a balanced healthy diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, wholegrain and high fibre starchy carbohydrates, healthy sources of protein like white and oily fish, pulses and nuts and less foods high in saturated fat, sugar and salt.

More useful information