Pop Goes the Diet—The Worst Food in the World

Soda
Since all great things come in threes (or is it celebrity deaths?), we’re going to complete our sugar trilogy with a look at the worst food in the world: soda pop. Forget about brands; whether it’s Coke, Dr. Pepper, or even Hansen’s Natural, it’s all junk. There are different degrees of “junkiness,” but this is Nutrition 911, so we’re sticking with the bird’s-eye perspective. The taste might make you happy, but from a nutritional point of view, soda’s only place in the world is to make people fat, sick, and unhappy.

Alarming statistics
In America, we drink a lot of cola (or “un-cola”). A lot. On average, we each drank 52.4 gallons in 2005, and this figure includes infants, healthy folks, prisoners, etc., meaning that the average soda drinker actually gulps (their word) more than this. Carbonated soft drinks are the biggest single caloric source in the American diet. Teenagers in particular are hooked on the stuff and get an average of 13 percent of their daily calories from “pop.” If this doesn’t scare you, it should. In terms of sheer amount, these statistics could be alarming if it were any one food. A proper diet should have some balance and diversity. And soda pop is the antithesis of “any food.” It’s bad food.

“Empty calories”
We use the term “empty calories” for foods like soda that have no place in a nutritious diet. This term is ridiculously misleading. The calories in soda are far from empty. Most of them come from sugar. In the U.S., it’s nearly always high fructose corn syrup, the cheapest, most processed sugar on the market. Other ingredients include caffeine, various phosphates and acids, and artificial colorings. We’ll get to their effects on the human body in a minute, but first, let’s stick to the simple stuff. Per day, the average teenager consumes between 10 and 15 teaspoons of refined sugar via soda—which, according to government standards, is about their daily requirement for all foods. This means that for the average teenager, his or her soda consumption virtually eliminates his or her chances of eating a balanced diet. There’s nothing empty about that.

Weird science
The soda companies are a marketing juggernaut. They spend roughly $700 million a year on media advertising alone—not to mention hundreds of millions more sponsoring events, athletes, musicians, and such. This volume of cash makes it difficult for consumers to avoid them, by design. To avoid the temptation to drink Coke, you’ve got to be highly principled or living in the middle of the jungle. And even then, well, I once happened upon a soda vending machine halfway up Mount Yarigatake in the Japanese Alps, and a friend traveling in Guatemala found Coke in a rural area that didn’t have running water. Let’s just say that soda companies are going to continue making it easy for you to find the stuff. This type of marketing machine won’t go away quietly. With the stats listed above, you could certainly put two and two together and link soda companies to the childhood (and adult) obesity epidemic that is arguably the world’s most serious health crisis. Yet, while researching this article, I came across a widely published “study” stating that “soft drink consumption has no effect on childhood obesity.” Suspicious from the get-go (the word “no” being a huge red flag), it didn’t take me long to find this statement: “The research paper was supported by an unrestricted gift from the American Beverage Association.” Bingo. Remember those Philip Morris tobacco “studies” that promised a long and healthy life from chain smoking?

What makes it so bad?
Besides the simple caloric trade-off, sodas are formulated to give you a rush. The sugar is mixed with phosphates designed to speed it into your system. It’s so good, in fact, that many cyclists prefer Coca-Cola to specific sports food when they need a sugar rush near the end of races. And while a sugar rush is a good thing when you’re trying to exceed your anaerobic threshold and you’re out of blood glycogen (never mind if you don’t know what this is), it’s a bad thing whenever you’re not, which even for a competitive cyclist is 99.9 percent of the time.

Beyond the simple sugar rush, these acids and phosphates alter your body’s pH levels and inhibit the absorption of other nutrients. Then there are the effects of certain artificial coloring agents. For example, yellow #5, commonly used in soft drinks, has been linked to attention deficit disorder, hives, asthma, and other allergic reactions in some children.

Then there is the nutrient trade-off to consider. A person who drinks one Big Gulp per day must go to great lengths to maintain a balanced diet. Otherwise, he or she will almost certainly be deficient in numerous vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and essential fatty or amino acids—none of which is found in soda. For this reason, soda is often linked to type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, dental erosion, and a higher risk of kidney stones and heart disease. And that’s just a start. There’s plenty of less scientific data linking soda to poor scholastic habits, which we’ll get to in a later class.

Diet sodas and juices
In an attempt to become thought of as healthier, soda companies have diversified into non-carbonated beverages and diet sodas. While these are an improvement in some ways, they are hardly a solution to the problem. First off, most juices and other caloric non-soda alternatives are mainly just sugar and water without the carbonation. A quick label comparison between a commercial orange juice and a Mountain Dew would show a similar “bottom line” with regards to calories and sugar. The only improvement would be the lack of the non-caloric offenders. But that’s no small matter, as the true effects of these ingredients have not been thoroughly studied. Despite their no-calorie status, diet sodas have been linked to assorted illnesses. Recent studies have backed up my more anecdotal evidence that I’ve yet to have a client not lose weight by kicking diet soda. Granted, all of my clients drank an excessive amount, but regardless, there is little doubt that the pH balance of diet sodas hinders the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, and that just may be the tip of the non-caloric iceberg.

A large-scale study in 2007 showed that men and women who had more than one diet soda a day were 31 percent more likely to be obese and 25 percent more likely to have both high triglycerides and blood sugar, and they had a 50 percent greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Never mind if you don’t know what metabolic syndrome is. Just trust me when I tell you that you don’t want it.

How can you help?
In my world, soft drinks would come with the same type of regulatory language as cigarettes and booze, at least. Actually, in my world, we’d all be educated and wouldn’t require this language at all, but that’s Politics 911, not Nutrition 911. Anyway, here are five ways you can help educate the public about the dangers of soda, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Contact your local government officials and/or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and suggest that:
1. National and local governments should require chain restaurants to declare the calorie content of soft drinks and all other items on menus and menu boards.
2. The FDA should require labels on non-diet soft drinks to state that frequent consumption of those drinks promotes obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, osteoporosis, and other health problems.
3. Local, state, and federal governments should provide water fountains in schools, government buildings, parks, and other public spaces.
4. School systems and other organizations catering to children should stop selling soft drinks (as well as candy and other junk foods) in hallways, shops, and cafeterias.
5. State and local governments should consider levying small taxes on soft drinks, with the revenues earmarked for promoting health and fitness. A national 2-cent tax on a can of soda pop would raise $3 billion annually.

Are you scared yet? You should be. Or you could just stop drinking soda. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

What Happens to Our Brains During Exercise (and Why it Makes Us Happier)

What Happens to Our Brains During Exercise (and Why it Makes Us Happier)Most of us are aware of what happens to the body when we exercise. We build more muscle or more stamina. We feel how daily activities like climbing stairs becomes easier if we exercise regularly. When it comes to our brain and mood though, the connection isn’t so clear. Leo Widrich, co-founder of social media sharing app Buffer, set out to uncover the connection between feeling happy and exercising regularly.
What triggers happiness in our brain when we exercise?

“Yes, yes, I know all about it, that’s the thing with the endorphins, that makes you feel good and why we should exercise and stuff, right?” is what I can hear myself say to someone bringing this up. I would pick up things here and there, yet really digging into the connection of exercise and how it effects us has never been something I’ve done. The line around our “endorphins are released” is more something I throw around to sound smart, without really knowing what it means.

Here is what actually happens:

If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease and like things are clear after exercising.

At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, are released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose are this, writes researcher MK McGovern:

“These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain, and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.”

There is a lot going on inside our brain and it is oftentimes a lot more active than when we are just sitting down or actually concentrating mentally:


So, BDNF and endorphins are the reasons exercise makes us feel so good. The somewhat scary part is that they have a very similar and addictive behavior like morphine, heroin, or nicotine. The only difference? Well, it’s actually good for us.

Don’t do more, but focus on when

Now here is where it all gets interesting. We know the basic foundations of why exercising makes us happy and what happens inside our brain cells. The most important part to uncover now is, of how we can trigger this in an optimal and longer lasting way?

A recent study from Penn State shed some light on the matter and the results are more than surprising. They found that to be more productive and happier on a given work day, it doesn’t matter so much, if you work-out regularly, that you haven’t worked out on that particular day:

“Those who had exercised during the preceding month but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning.”

New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Reynolds wrote a whole book about the subject matter called The First 20 Minutes. To get the highest level of happiness and benefits for health, the key is not to become a professional athlete. On the contrary, a much smaller amount is needed to reach the level where happiness and productivity in every day life peaks:

“The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk – all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.”

So really, you can relax and don’t have to be on the lookout for the next killer work out. All you have to do is get a focused 20 minutes in to get the full happiness boost every day:

“On exercise days, people’s mood significantly improved after exercising. Mood stayed about the same on days they didn’t, with the exception of people’s sense of calm which deteriorated.”(University of Bristol)

Make it a habit

Starting to exercise regularly or even daily is still easier said than done. At end of the day, there is quite a lot of focus required to get into the habit of exercising daily. The most important part to note is that exercise is a keystone habit. This means that daily exercise can pave the way not only for happiness, but also growth in all other areas of your life.

In a recent post from my colleague Joel, he wrote about the power of daily exercise for his every day life. Coincidentally, he follows the above rules very accurately and exercises daily before doing anything else. He writes:

“By 9:30am, I’ve done an hour of coding on the most important task I have right now on Buffer, I’ve been to the gym and had a great session, and I’ve done 30 minutes of emails. It’s only 9:30am and I’ve already succeeded, and I feel fantastic.”

I’ve spoken lots to Joel about his habit of exercising and here are some of the most important things to do in order to set yourself up for success and make your daily exercise fun:

  • Put your gym clothes right over your alarm clock or phone when you go to bed: This technique sounds rather simple, but has been one of the most powerful ones. If you put everything the way you want it for the gym before you go to sleep and put your alarm under your gym clothes, you will have a much easier time to convince yourself to put your gym clothes on.
  • Track your exercises and log them at the same time after every exercise: When you try to exercise regularly, the key is to make it a habit. One way to achieve this is to create a so called “reward”, that will remind you of the good feelings you get from exercising. In our big list of top web apps, we have a full section on fitness apps that might be handy. Try out Fitocracy or RunKeeper to log your work outs. Try to have a very clear logging process in place. Log your work out just before you go into the shower or exactly when you walk out of the gym.
  • Think about starting small and then start even smaller: Here is a little secret. When I first started exercising, I did it with 5 minutes per day, 3 times a week. Can you imagine that? 5 minutes of timed exercise, 3 times a week? That’s nothing you might be thinking. And you are right, because the task is so easy and anyone can succeed with it, you can really start to make a habit out of it. Try no more than 5 or 10 minutes if you are getting started.

The highest level of happiness happens at the beginning

As a quick last fact, exercise, the increase of the BDNF proteins in your brain acts as a mood enhancer. The effects are similar to drug addiction one study found. So when you start exercising, the feeling of euphoria is the highest:

“The release of endorphins has an addictive effect, and more exercise is needed to achieve the same level of euphoria over time.” (McGovern)

So, if you have never exercised before (or not for a long time), your happiness gains will be the highest if you start now.