Heavy Consumption of Sugary Drinks Has Dropped in the US

Percentage of people drinking 500+ calories of sweet drinks daily has gone down.

glass of soda on the counter
Heavy consumers drink the equivalent of at least 3 1/2 cans of sugary sodas a day.

Sellwell / Getty Images 

Americans eat and drink a lot of sugar, but there’s some good news when it comes to sugar-sweetened beverages. The percentage of people who are heavy consumers of these sweet drinks has declined significantly over time, new research finds.

According to a new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the percentage of heavy sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumers trended downwards between 2003 and 2016 in the United States. Heavy consumers are those who drink more than 500 calories of sugary drinks per day. One 12-ounce can of regular cola has about 140 calories, so that means they drink the equivalent of at least 3 1/2 cans per day.

The percentage of heavy SSB drinkers dropped from about 13% to 9% in adults overall, with some differences in age, sex, and racial/ethnic groups. Among children, the percentage declined from 11% to 3% across all ages, sexes, race/ethnicities, and family income levels.

“This is promising because we know that excessive SSB consumption is related to poor health outcomes like weight gain, diabetes, and dental caries,” first author Kelsey Vercammen, doctoral candidate in the department of epidemiology, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells Treehugger.

However, she points out, there are groups with no changes to their heavy sugary beverage consumption.

“Additionally, for many SSBs, there is no added nutritional value, so any consumption is not good from a public health point of view. So, while our results suggest that heavy SSB intake is declining overall, there is still a need for further efforts to reduce excessive SSB intake in the U.S.”

Researchers used data from 2003 to 2016 from more than 20,000 children and 30,000 adults from the National Health Examination and Nutrition Survey (NHANES). They examined heavy SSB consumption, as well as trends by sex, age, race/ethnicity, and family income level.

They found that the percentage of SSB drinkers has increased among people 60 years old and older, although the overall percentage of sugary drink consumers in the group was low. There were no notable differences (which means no improvement) in the percentage of heavy SSB drinkers among non-Mexican Hispanic adults and in those 40-59 years old. Most other races/ethnicities showed an improvement.

A Positive Public Health Story

This new research on heavy sugar-sweetened beverage consumption mirrors studies that have found that overall SSB intake has been dropping in the U.S. over time.

Vercammen points out that the results, on one hand, “tell a positive public health story.”

Some cities and counties in the U.S. have imposed beverage taxes to discourage the sale and consumption of sugary drinks. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association called for tighter rules surrounding the consumption, distribution, and advertising of sugary beverages to children. There have been healthy beverage ordinances and public health campaigns all working to raise awareness of the health issues connected to sugary drinks.

“Greater awareness about the health harms of SSBs (especially soda) seems to be shifting public preference. So, it’s possible that these efforts and the awareness they have generated may be driving some of the declines seen in recent years of the data,” Vercammen says. 

“Unfortunately, evaluations of strategies to reduce SSB intake rarely examine effects among heavy SSB drinkers alone, so we don’t have good data to say which specific strategies have been most effective for decreasing heavy SSB intake.”

It's important to keep studying, she says, to make sure trends continue in the right direction.