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Sugary Drinks May Boost Risk of Premature Death

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Links between excess sugar in your diet and disease have been well-documented, but new research by Harvard's School of Public Health might make you even more wary of that next soda: it could increase your risk of an early death.

The study, published this week in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation, found that drinking one or two sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) each day — like sodas or sports drinks — increases risk of an early death by 14 percent.


The researchers also tabulated the risk increases related to certain diseases. For instance, those who drank two or more sugary drinks daily had a 31 percent higher risk of dying early from cardiovascular disease. Each additional sugary drink per day increased that risk by a further 10 percent. The researchers found a moderate link between sugar-sweetened drinks and increased risk of dying early from various cancers, including colon and breast cancers.

"The optimal intake of these drinks is zero," lead author on the study Vasanti Malik, a research scientist at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told The New York Times. "They have no health benefits."

During the study, Malik and other researchers analyzed data from more than 80,000 women who participated in the Nurse's Health Study from 1980 to 2014 and from more than 37,000 men who participated in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study from 1986 to 2014.

After adjusting for diet and lifestyle differences as much as possible, the researchers found that risk of early death increased across the board with increased consumption of sugary drinks. The study builds on findings from previous research that established a strong association between excess sugar consumption and obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and stroke, among other diseases.

"The big picture is really starting to emerge," Malik told CNBC. "This is not random. There's a whole lot of consistency across these findings."

That said, there was some good news for diet soda drinkers. Replacing a sugary drink with an artificially sweetened drink like a diet soda reduces some of that risk of an early death, the research indicated, though this effect had its limits, too. According to the study, women who had at least four artificially sweetened beverages a day actually increased their risk of early death, particularly from cardiovascular disease.

Malik cautioned that this finding requires further examination because it might have been due to individuals already at high risk of an early death switching from soda to diet drinks or because women tend to underreport energy intake compared to men, she told USA Today.

The researchers noted that while sugary drink consumption in recent years was down in the U.S., there has been a recent increase among adults, and sugary drinks remain the largest source of added sugar in the average American diet.

The federal government suggests that added sugar should not account for more than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake in a healthy diet, but having just one soda or a sports drink could put you close to or beyond that limit, based on the average adult's daily calorie needs.

"Our results provide further support to limit intake of SSBs and to replace them with other beverages, preferably water, to improve overall health and longevity," Malik said in a press release.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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