Researchers reported Tuesday that they have linked 180,000 obesity-related deaths worldwide to sugary drinks, including about 25,000 adult Americans.
Overall, 1 in 100 deaths of obese people globally can be blamed on too many sweetened beverages, according to a study presented at an American Heart Association scientific conference in New Orleans. Mexico leads the 35 largest nations in deaths attributable to over-consumption of sugary drinks, with the United States third. Japan, which has one of the lowest per-capita consumptions of sugary drinks, had the fewest sugar-related deaths.
Using data collected as part of the World Health Organization's 2010 Global Burden of Diseases Study, the researchers determined that 78% of these deaths were in low- and middle-income countries.
Of the deaths in 2010 linked to drinking sugar-sweetened soft drinks, fruit juice or sports beverages, 132 000 were from diabetes, 44 000 from cardiovascular disease and 6,000 from cancer.
The most diabetes deaths (38,000) occurred in the Latin America/Caribbean region, with East/Central Eurasia reporting the largest numbers of cardiovascular deaths (11,000) related to over-consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks.
The finding that three quarters of the deaths were from diabetes "suggests that limiting sugary-beverage intake is an important step in reducing diabetes deaths," co-author Gitanjali Singh, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an interview.
Average consumption varied widely - from less than one 8-ounce drink a day among elderly Chinese women to more than five 8-ounce drinks every day among younger Cuban men.
"Because we were focused on deaths due to chronic diseases, our study focused on adults. Future research should assess the amount of sugary beverage consumption in children across the world and how this affects their current and future health," Singh said.
In a statement, the American Beverage Association, the trade group for the non-alcoholic beverage industry, dismissed the findings as "more about sensationalism than science."
"This abstract, which is not peer-reviewed nor published in a way where its methodology can be fully evaluated, is more about sensationalism than science. It does not show that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages causes chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer - the real causes of death among the studied subjects. The researchers make a huge leap when they take beverage intake calculations from around the globe and allege that those beverages are the cause of deaths which the authors themselves acknowledge are due to chronic disease."
The Harvard School of Public Health has a fact sheet on "sugary drink supersizing and the obesity epidemic."
Two out of three adults and one out of three children in the United States are overweight or obese, and the nation spends an estimated $190 billion a year treating obesity-related health conditions. Rising consumption of sugary drinks has been a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. A typical 20-ounce soda contains 15 to 18 teaspoons of sugar and upwards of 240 calories. A 64-ounce fountain cola drink could have up to 700 calories. People who drink this "liquid candy" do not feel as full as if they had eaten the same calories from solid food and do not compensate by eating less.
The American Heart Association recommends that based on a 2,000-calories-a-week diet, adults should not consume more than 450 calories from sugar-sweetened beverages.
Monday, Mississippi's Republican governor signed into a law legislation that prohibits cities and counties from restricting or banning the size of soft drinks, or from requiring that restaurants post calorie counts or other nutritional information. Mississippi is the most obese state in the nation.
"It is simply not the role of government to micro-regulate citizens' dietary decisions," Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement. "The responsibility for one's personal health depends on individual choices about a proper diet and appropriate exercise."
The action came a week after a New York state judge struck down Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt to limit most sugary drinks to 16 ounces.
Bloomberg called the Mississippi legislation "ridiculous."