Diabetes can cause serious health complications, including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure and lower-extremity amputations. It is also the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Most of what we eat and drink is turned into glucose, or sugar, and used for energy. However, for people with diabetes, their bodies do not properly process food for use as energy — causing sugars to build up in their blood. This is why it is so important that people with diabetes carefully monitor their diets and avoid excess sugar intake, especially when it comes to sugary drinks.
Diabetes educator Tiffany Rios, RD, CDE, answers a few questions about diabetes and sugary drinks, and offers tasty alternatives to quench your thirst, whether you have diabetes or not.
What do we mean when we say "sugary"? Does that include both natural and added sugars?
The word "sugary" usually refers to "added sugars," which means sugars that are added rather than naturally occurring in food. Examples of added sugars include table sugar (sucrose), evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, molasses, honey, agave and high fructose corn syrup. On the other hand, foods such as fruits, milk, yogurt and starches include sugars that occur naturally.
How important is this issue for children with diabetes?
Sweetened beverages spike blood sugar levels and lead to elevated sugar levels in children who have diabetes, which increases their risk of medical complications and hospitalization. Sweetened beverages are still the top source of added sugars for all children in the U.S. and can cause unhealthy weight gain, which exacerbates elevated blood sugars for those with existing diabetes, and ultimately leads to Type 2 diabetes in children who are undiagnosed.
CDC studies show that 30 percent of children in the U.S. consume two or more sugary drinks a day. Most sugar-laden beverages, such as soda, juice, fruit punch and sports drinks, can have up to 36 grams of sugar per serving, which equals 6 teaspoons of sugar — the daily maximum amount of sugar recommended by the American Heart Association. In addition, these sugar-laden drinks are often displacing more nutritious calories.
What about people who don't have diabetes? Are sugary drinks OK for them?
According to research done by the Cleveland Clinic, people who regularly consume sugary drinks — one to two cans a day or more — have a 26 percent greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than people who rarely have such drinks. A study published by the International Journal of Angiology suggests that added sugars also induce oxidative stress, which is a precursor to conditions such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, heart failure and cardiac arrhythmias.
What are some tips for breaking the sugary drink habit?
Remember that small changes over time can make a big impact on your health. Reducing added sugars and consuming healthier types and quantities of sugar (in moderation) are habits that produce great results and help prevent disease. Here are some ways to do that:
- Make water easily accessible. Place a water pitcher in the refrigerator or on the counter, or put it in a colorful, eye-catching water bottle or cup you carry with you.
- Start by watering down juices — for example, 2 ounces of juice combined with 6 ounces of water — and gradually decrease the juice portion until it is all water.
- Drink infused water instead. Add generous amounts of lemon or cucumber, or mix in herbs, such as mint or thyme, to your water. Let it sit overnight and in the morning you'll have a delicious beverage.
- Try kombucha, a popular fermented tea drink with probiotics that is a good alternative to soda because it retains the effervescence some crave.
- Make unsweetened, caffeine-free teas, such as fruit or mint teas, and don't add any sugar. Rooibos tea and peppermint tea are nice options for colder weather.
- Cow's milk or unsweetened almond, soy and coconut milk are all fabulous choices. Three servings of cow's milk or fortified non-dairy milk products per day can help provide adequate calcium and vitamin D.
Talk with your doctor if you are concerned about your or a loved one's sugar intake. Learn about Sharp's Diabetes Care and Patient Education programs, including support groups, nutritional counseling, classes and coaching via text message, at sharp.com/diabetes.