Another Reason Why Soda Is a Downer

New study links soft drinks and other sugary beverages with depression in older adults.

Are you sad because you drink Coke or do you drink Coke because you're sad? (Photo: George Coppock/Getty Images)

Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Have a Coke and a smile”? How about “Have a Coke and a Paxil”?

Coke and the makers of other soft drinks and sugary beverages may have to rethink their slogans if the findings of a recent National Institutes of Health study hold up. Researchers at the NIH have linked the consumption of sweetened beverages to depression in older adults, according to CBS News.

(Oops … there goes “Open happiness,” too.)

Dr. Honglei Chen and his team reviewed data collected in the mid-1990s on the consumption of soda, tea, fruit punch and coffee by more than 250,000 adults between the ages of 50 and 71. The researchers then followed up a decade later to ask participants if they had been diagnosed with depression since 2000.

The study reports that individuals who drank more than four cans or cups of soda per day were 30 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with depression than people who did not drink sweetened beverages. Drinkers of sweetened diet beverages had the highest risk.

As for coffee? Caffeine fiends will love this: Coffee drinkers who drank four or more cups a day had a 10 percent lower chance of being diagnosed with depression.

"Our research suggests that cutting out or down on sweetened diet drinks or replacing them with unsweetened coffee may naturally help lower your depression risk," says Chen. "More research is needed to confirm these findings, and people with depression should continue to take depression medications prescribed by their doctors."

Predictably, the soda industry swifty and defiantly dismissed the findings, with the American Beverage Association issuing a statement that reads, in part: “This research is nothing more than an abstract—it has not been peer-reviewed, published or even, at the very least, presented at a scientific meeting. Furthermore, neither this abstract nor the body of scientific evidence supports that drinking soda or other sweetened beverages causes depression. Thus, promoting any alleged findings without supporting evidence is not only premature, but irresponsible.”

Of course, the conflict of interest there is about as subtle as a Mountain Dew ad. Nevertheless, a number of independent scientists urged caution in response to the findings, emphasizing the whole “chicken-and-the-egg” conundrum of determining which came first, the soda or the depression.

"There is much more evidence that people who are depressed crave sweet things than there is to suggest that sweetened beverages cause depression," Dr. Kenneth M. Heilman, a professor of neurology at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville, said to WebMD.

It is true that while soda and other sugary drinks have been scientifically “linked” to a number of health problems—ranging from a higher risk of stroke to certain cancers—many of those studies have been far from conclusive.

Even so, public health advocates and others who support reigning in soda consumption (including taxing soda and other sweetened drinks) say that the evidence is overwhelming that sugary beverages are one of the primary culprits behind Americans’ ever expanding waistlines.

As Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, put it to WebMD, soft drinks are the biggest single source of empty calories in America: “According to the USDA, 16 percent of calories in the typical American’s diet come from refined sugars and half of those calories come from beverages with added sugar. Sodas used to be an occasional treat, but now they are part of the culture.”

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