Rebecca Patterson, RD, CDE, shows how much sugar is consumed in one 20-ounce Coca-Cola and how much sugar is consumed by drinking one 20-ounce Mountain Dew.
Rebecca Patterson, RD, CDE, shows how much sugar is consumed in one 20-ounce Coca-Cola and how much sugar is consumed by drinking one 20-ounce Mountain Dew every day for a week. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

For years, people have debated about what to call it.

In the Midwest, we call it pop. In other parts of the country, people call it soda. Some combine the two and call it soda pop. To Southerners, it’s a Coke. East Coasters refer to it as tonic.  Some just call it a fizzy drink.

But there’s no debate about this: soft drinks are bad for your health.

A study by Yale University shows that the average American drinks 45 gallons of pop each year.

“It’s amazing how much pop people drink,” said Rebecca Patterson, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital. “A lot of people drink it all day long and end up having the equivalent of a 2-liter bottle or more.”

Restaurants are another place where it’s easy to drink a lot of pop without even realizing it.

“It’s like an endless glass of pop. The server just keeps refilling it and before you know it, you’ve had two or three 30-ounce glasses of pop,” Patterson said.

Many people are consuming more than a day’s worth of calories and carbohydrates just from pop alone. And that’s contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic.

“The obesity rate has increased proportionately to the soda pop intake rate,” Patterson said. “Since about 1980, obesity rates have really taken off. Interestingly, that’s about the same time soda pop intake started to increase. There’s a definite correlation.”

With increased body weight comes an increased risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Drinking just one can of pop per day increases the risk of diabetes by 26 percent and increases the risk of heart attack by 20 percent.

In fact, more than half of the newly diagnosed patients in Patterson’s diabetes self-management education classes are pop drinkers.

“A symptom of high blood sugar is excessive thirst,” she said. “With many of my patients, I see a vicious circle where people are thirsty so they drink pop, which makes their blood sugar go up, which makes them more thirsty, so they drink even more pop.”

And it’s not just obesity and diabetes that pop drinkers need to worry about.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says sugar-sweetened beverages can cause fatty liver disease, kidney disease and gout.

In addition, phosphoric acid found in soft drinks weakens bones and increases the risk of osteoporosis. That same acid, along with the sugar in soft drinks, dissolves tooth enamel, leading to cavities.

Research also suggests that soda pop may contribute to depression and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Is there anything healthy in soft drinks?

“Absolutely not,” Patterson said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s regular or diet, there’s absolutely no health benefits in pop. They’re completely empty calories which give us no nutritional value.”

For those who want to cut back on their soft drink consumption, Patterson recommends weening off soft drinks by substituting a lower sugar option such as water, tea or milk.

For those who like carbonation, she suggests sparkling water that doesn’t contain sweeteners.

Diet pop should not be considered a healthy alternative because studies suggest the artificial sweeteners and acid in diet pop can lead to numerous health problems as well.

The final thing Patterson recommends: pay attention to the labels on soft drinks.

“The labels can be very confusing,” she said. “For example, a 20-ounce pop has 2.5 servings, but I don’t see many people buy a 20-ounce pop and not finish the whole thing as one single serving. That 20-ounce pop has about 17 teaspoons of sugar in it.”