Is Soda Bad for You? Soda’s Side Effects + Alternatives

Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Reviewed by Craig Primack, MD, FACP, FAAP, FOMA

Written by Lauren Panoff

Published 05/21/2024

We don’t love labeling foods and beverages “good” or “bad” — not even soda. This sort of black-and-white thinking doesn’t do us any favors in the healthy eating department. 

But when something offers no nutritional benefit — like regular and diet soda — there’s no point in trying to sugarcoat the facts (see what we did there?). 

Here’s what gives soda its bad rap and why so many health experts recommend alternative options.

Generally speaking, soda isn’t good for your health. Whether you always go for diet soda or stick to the OG, it’s important to be aware of the downsides of drinking soda regularly.  

If soda is a frequent flyer in your body, it can contribute to a higher risk of things like weight gain and tooth decay.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a soda (or “pop” if you’re from the Midwest) now and again. Like so many things, nutrition exists on a spectrum — the best we can do is make informed choices.  

Drinking soda can help you satisfy a sweet tooth and give you a jolt of caffeine when you’re dragging. And, let’s be honest, it can bring you a few precious moments of joy on an otherwise mundane day. 

But, that’s about where the pros list ends. And there’s a long list of downsides to cover. So, if you’re curious about what soda actually does to your body, keep reading.

Increases Your Risk of Obesity

If you’re working towards weight loss goals, soda isn’t your friend. It’s high in added sugar — often upwards of 40 grams per can — mostly in the form of high fructose corn syrup.  

Your body metabolizes the sugar in soda quickly, causing spikes in blood sugar levels that can promote fat storage. Some research even suggests that high fructose intake affects your brain and hormones in a way that promotes weight gain.

If you’re regularly drinking soda with your meals, this can add a bunch of extra calories to your day. Even if you’re eating a low-calorie diet, the sugar in soda can add up, making it harder to lose weight. 

Soda can promote further unwanted weight gain and increase the risk of obesity-related health issues.

Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance occurs when cells in your body become less responsive to the effects of insulin, a hormone that lowers your blood sugar levels. 

Without the effects of insulin, glucose hangs out in your blood longer, leading to high blood sugar levels. This can increase your risk of type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders.

Consuming soda increases the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes because of its high sugar content. Frequent spikes in blood sugar can be stressful for your insulin response, potentially leading to insulin resistance.

Lacks Essential Nutrients

Soda is a perfect example of “empty calories”. Its high added sugar content contributes calories to your day without the essential nutrients you would get if you ate something healthier, like an apple. 

Naturally occurring sugars — like those found in fruits and vegetables — come packed with essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. All of which help support your overall health. (Fiber, for example, may help regulate your appetite and blood sugar levels). 

Soda may even interfere with your vitamin and mineral intake. The phosphoric acid in soda may interfere with calcium absorption. If you’re not getting much calcium from food, this could potentially impact your bone health.

Leptin Resistance

Leptin is a hormone that helps regulate hunger and signal fullness to your brain. This communication process can be disrupted, leading to decreased sensitivity to leptin. 

Leptin resistance might contribute to ongoing feelings of hunger and unintentional weight gain.

Studies in rats have shown that a high-fructose diet may elevate the risk of leptin resistance. 

Heart Disease Risk

The high added sugar content in soda is also to blame for its association with heart disease risk. 

Drinking sugary soda in excess can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, and unfavorable cholesterol profiles. 

Many people wonder, does soda cause high cholesterol? It’s possible. Soda has been associated with increased levels of triglycerides and LDL “bad” cholesterol, which are risk factors for cardiovascular problems. 

Soda intake may also promote inflammation and oxidative stress, which can further exacerbate poor heart health over time.

Cancer Risk

Drinking sugary soda regularly may increase the risk of cancer, as obesity is a known risk factor for various types of cancer. 

Additionally, the caramel coloring used in some sodas contains a chemical called 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI). This compound has been linked to cancer in animal studies and is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). 

Finally, the caramelization process in soda production can form harmful compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which may play a role in cancer development.

Dental Cavities

Ask your dentist for their top recommendations of beverages for oral health and hygiene and we guarantee soda isn’t on the list. But why is soda bad for you and your teeth?

The added sugar you get from drinking soda provides a nice source of food for the bacteria in your mouth that produce tooth-decaying acid. 

Plus, many sodas are acidic themselves (partially because of the phosphoric acid they contain), which can further erode your tooth enamel, the outermost protective layer of your teeth. This increases your risk of cavities as bacteria can get closer to your teeth. 

Frequently drinking soda can also decrease saliva production, which normally helps to neutralize acids and protect your pearly whites from tooth decay.

Dementia Risk

It’s not the soda itself that promotes dementia. It’s the fact that regularly consuming sugary soda is associated with a higher risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, which are all linked to declining brain function

As mentioned, drinking a lot of soda can also promote inflammation and insulin resistance, both of which are believed to play a role in the development of dementia. 

Finally, excessive consumption of sugary beverages may lead to oxidative stress, potentially contributing to the risk of dementia.

Promotes Inflammation

Ultra-processed foods like soda are known to be pro-inflammatory. 

Drinking sugary soda can lead to blood sugar spikes. These spikes can promote the release of cytokines, signaling molecules that promote chronic inflammation. 

This is problematic because systemic inflammation is linked to numerous chronic diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancers, and inflammatory conditions. 

Prescribed online

Weight loss treatment that puts you first

Now that you know what happens if you drink too much soda, you might be wondering what to do next. Listen, if you love soda and want to enjoy it occasionally, we’re not trying to take that away from you. 

But if you’re looking to wean yourself off the soft drink train, there are several healthier alternatives that can offer refreshment without all the added sugar:

  • Plain water. Water is without question the healthiest beverage any of us can be drinking. On top of that, it’s literally essential to life, with over 60 percent of our body consisting of water at any given time. 

  • Herbal teas. Teas offer a flavorful alternative, providing hydration along with various other health benefits (depending on the type of herb). 

  • Seltzer or sparkling water. Add a dash of lemon, lime, or other fruits to mimic the taste of soda without the added sugars or artificial flavors. 

  • Infused water. When plain water gets boring, try adding cucumber slices, raspberries, or lemon wedges for a unique flavor. 

What About Diet Soda?

When you’re trying to pivot from regular soda to a less sugary option, diet soda may seem like the next best stepping stone given its lack of sugar and calories.

But diet soda — which uses artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin — comes with its own set of concerns

Artificial sweeteners may be linked to health issues like metabolic disturbances, an altered gut microbiome (the community of microbes living in your gut), and increased cravings for sweet foods. But more research is definitely needed.

Some studies suggest that even though they’re sugar-free, diet sodas may still come with an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia, and heart disease. 

Relying on diet soda can displace healthier options like water or herbal teas, and perpetuate a preference for super-sweet tastes. Plus, even though diet soda doesn’t contain added sugar, it also doesn’t contain any more beneficial nutrients than regular soda. 

One of the main reasons many people are interested in moving away from sugar-sweetened drinks like soda is their desire to lose weight and improve overall wellness. 

Soda is a great place to start when pursuing both of these goals, but it’s not the only factor involved. If you’re having trouble losing weight or just want to optimize your health, there are other important things to focus on to help you build healthy habits.

Get Better Sleep

Sleep is your body’s nightly opportunity to repair, recharge, and rejuvenate. 

Adequate sleep (which experts say is seven to nine hours per night for adults) also helps regulate hormones like leptin and ghrelin, which help regulate your appetite.

Sleep supports energy levels, mood, and the ability to think clearly, helping you make healthier choices the next day. 

Ongoing sleep deprivation, on the other hand, is associated with a higher risk of unintentional weight gain and obesity, as well as inflammation and other chronic diseases. 

If your sleep hygiene could use some work, here are a few tips to try: 

  • Stick to a regular sleep-wake schedule

  • Avoid screens close to bedtime

  • Create a serene environment in your bedroom, using things like white noise 

  • Avoid soda and other sources of caffeine

Stay Hydrated

Hydration is important for overall health and is a factor in weight management. 

Thirst can sometimes be mistaken for hunger, so keeping a water bottle to sip on throughout the day can help prevent unnecessary snacking. 

Drinking water before and during meals can also help promote satiety and prevent overeating. 

Finally, hydration supports fat burning, a key component of weight loss. 

Move Your Body More

For weight loss and health in general, exercise is non-negotiable.

With many of us working at our desks most of the day, making time for intentional movement is really important. 

Health experts recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise weekly. Add strength training (like using dumbbells, weight machines, or body weight exercises) at least twice a week. 

Consider exercises you enjoy doing, like swimming, cycling, jogging, brisk walking, playing tennis, or joining a group fitness class. 

Eat a Nutritious Diet 

Good nutrition has a huge influence on your physical, mental, and emotional health. Interestingly, surveys show soda drinkers tend to consume diets lower in nutritional quality.

A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and other lean proteins helps support your metabolism. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight and reduces your risk of chronic diseases.

Nutrient-dense foods like these help keep you full longer, making it easier to manage portion sizes and make healthier food choices.

Soda is a sugary, syrupy, easily accessible beverage, but is it good for you? Not exactly.

How bad is soda for you? Well, there are no health benefits attached to drinking regular or diet soda, and they actually increase your risk of certain health problems, so it’s best to keep them on the once-in-a-while list. 

  • Soda provides empty calories. It’s packed with sugar, but that’s about it. No essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, or fiber here.

  • There are better alternatives. Make a “fake-me-out” soda using seltzer water and lemon wedges, try herbal tea, or just prioritize plain water. These are healthier for your body and also better options for hydration. 

  • It’s only one factor in your health journey. Is one soda a day bad for you? Well, there are better options, and cutting back on soda consumption is a great step toward improving your health. But you can work most things into a healthy diet as long as you're mindful of moderation.

If you’re looking for more personalized guidance on your health, the Hers weight loss program might be right for you. You’ll work with one of our online licensed healthcare providers to learn about medications that can support you on your weight loss journey. 

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