March 8, 2018

Soda Bad for Health, But May Not Be Making Us Fat

Marcos Paseggi, Adventist Review

What follows is part of a series of reports on presentations given at the Seventh International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition in Loma Linda, California, United States, from February 26-28, 2018. Individual stories provide a summary of various topics covered and the presentations made throughout the event. ~ Adventist Review Editors

“Do not get me wrong,” said preventive medicine expert Neal Barnard in his presentation at the Loma Linda’s International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition on February 27, 2018. “Soda drinks are very bad for your health. No question about it. But the truth is, they may not be what are making you fat.”

Barnard, who teaches at the George Washington University School of Medicine and chair the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington D.C., made this startling observation when discussing how plant-based diets can support obesity treatment efforts.

Plant-based Diets and Obesity

Barnard revealed that in observational studies, “individuals following vegetarian, particularly vegan diets, have healthier body weights, on average, compared with those following omnivorous diets.” He added that “in clinical trials, vegetarian and vegan diets led to significant weight loss, even in the absence of physical exercise or limits on energy intake.”

Not every detail of the mechanism for plant-based diets weight loss is yet understood, but Barnard said that high-fiber and low-fat content seem to reduce dietary energy density. He also explained that apparently, an increased postprandial energy expenditure occurs.

Changes toward a plant-based diet are not only effective but produce positive modifications in other health indicators. Among others, researchers have observed favorable changes in overall nutrition, plasma lipid concentrations, and blood pressure, he said.

The Obesity Culprit

But then, again, what is the relationship between soda consumption and obesity?

Barnard showed that in recent years, consumption of soda in general has decreased, while “diet” or “sugar-free” soda drink options have skyrocketed. These do not necessarily add substantial amounts of calories to consumers’ diets. “They are still quite unhealthy, but they do not trigger obesity,” he said.

Considering the trend that fewer people are drinking soda and that if they do drink it, more than likely it would be a diet or sugar-free version, Barnard suggests that other foods are contributing more to weight gain these days than soda. There are other single food elements, Barnard believes, that fare much worse at preventing the epidemics of obesity we are witnessing around us.

“Which is the single food item that readily and easily adds fat to your body?” he asked, before answering: “It’s cheese!”

Unlike carbohydrates, Barnard explained that the body stores cheese very easily as fat. And he showed graphics where an apparent relationship appears between skyrocketing cheese consumption and the obesity epidemics.

Barnard also referred to studies that show that a fatty diet downregulates genes required for mitochondrial biogenesis. “This means that fat interferes with calorie burning,” he said. Fatty foods also impair cellular oxidation. “A high-fat diet disrupts intestinal barriers, and fat escorts endotoxins into the bloodstream,” he said. In some studies, researchers observed those adverse effects just five days after subjects were administered a high-fat diet.

What We Can Do

In his professional practice, Barnard said he invites people musing whether to begin a healthful diet to first check out the possibilities. “Don’t argue with your patients,” he told the nutrition professionals listening to him. “Invite them to weigh their options.” And then, he added, call them over to a 2-3-week “test-drive.” “Be a good coach,” he advised.

Examples of how adopting a plant-based diet has benefitted people are numerous, Barnard said. The worse the initial state of the person is, the faster positive effects seem to kick in.

Barnard said that a plant-based diet has the potential of improving the quality of life of patients suffering from various diseases, including heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and postmenopausal overweight women. It was a statement echoed time after time by several other presenters at the event.

Take Brenda Davis, for instance. Davis, a nutrition consultant from British Columbia, Canada, who has authored a dozen books on plant-based nutrition, discussed case studies where a change in diet meant improved health, better management, and even reversal of chronic diseases outcomes.

“When you have a disease, it’s like your house is on fire,” she said. “Make sure you do not add any gasoline — unhealthy food choices — to the fire.”

Davis, who presented on the last day of the event, said even moderate changes can produce valuable clinical improvements. “And the more the patient changes, the greater are expected results,” she said.

Loma Linda University Preventive Medicine professor Wes Youngberg agreed with Davis in that some diet-related conditions can be changed for the better. “God created the body in such a way that, with time and the right process, a state can be reversed,” he said. “Your role — he told nutrition professionals attending the congress — is to invite [your patients] to go on a program that allows them a road to healing.”

That road to health may be hard and strenuous at first, but instructions for moving forward are simple, Davis said. “Make whole plant foods the foundations of your diet, and remove added sugars and refined starches,” she advised.

And yes, no doubt about it—skip the sodas!