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A Short History of Beverages and How the Body Treats Them

This is sort of a departure from the typical paper I talk on this website as it deals with the history of beverages and how our body treats them physiologically.   While interesting in its own right (to me anyhow), it also provides some practical application that I’ll examine at the end of the article.

I think it’s especially relevant after the research review I posted on high fructose corn syrup for the simple fact that people are confounding what the real issue actually is in terms of causal effects on obesity.  As you’ll see as you read this, the issue isn’t with HFCS per se, but rather with the foods in which they are most commonly consumed: sweetened soft drinks.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Specifically I will be looking at the following paper”

Wolf A, Bray GA, Popkin BM. A short history of beverages and how our body
treats them. Obes Rev. 2008 Mar;9(2):151-64.

I won’t get into every detail provided, of course or this would take absolute pages to describe.  Rather, I want to hit the highlights of what the paper discusses to lead into the application at the end.

Patterns of Beverage Consumption

After the necessary introduction, the paper first looks at changes in the patterns of beverage consumption within the US. They point out that by 2004, Americans were consuming over 135 gallons of fluids other than water or about 1.5 liter per day. Basically, Americans are drinking a lot but it isn’t water; by definition it must be something else.

The early part of the paper also trots out something called the Beverage Guidance Panel; an attempt to give fluid consumption guidelines to consumers.  In my opinion, this graphic is about as useless as the current food pyramid. It’s complicated and pointless, simply confusing people more about the issue. I’m not going to bother talking about it.

They state:

While consumption of healthful beverages is falling, consumption of the most unhealthy beverages is strong.

Specifically, while milk and coffee consumption are at roughly one half of their historical maximum, with tea basically unchanged, regular soft drinks are the most popular beverage.  Beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup are consumed at a rate of over 35 gallons per year on average.   The second most popular drink is beer which at least has some nutrients.

I want folks to pay attention to that bolded bit since I’ll come back to it later on.

Positively, low-fat milk makes up two thirds of milk consumption with soft drink consumption trending downwards. However, this may be a false artifact due to how drinks are classified.  Specifically, energy drinks aren’t being counted as soft drinks which is making it look like folks are drinking less soda.  They aren’t, they are just drinking energy drinks instead.  And most of these are filled with sugar and calories along with the stimulant nutrients.

Looking globally, drink patterns have shown massive growth with soda products being consumed at a rate in excess of one billion drinks per day (makes you wish you’d bought stock, huh?).  Beer consumption has shown the greatest increase with tea showing a slight increase. Wine and milk consumption have fallen globally, presumably due to the introduction of all the drinks that have made America rich, proud and very fat (my comment, not theirs).

Compensation for Fluid Calories

The next section of the paper got into what is arguably the most important issue of the paper: the simple fact that for all but the last 11,000 years, the predominant fluids consumed by humans were water and breast milk and nothing else.

Now, they go out of their way to point out that milk is a complete beverage containing protein, carbohydrate, fat, water and various micronutrients. Water is, of course water which provides no calories. This is important because numerous studies have shown that humans show poor compensation for fluid calories.

Let me explain that a bit. Compensation means that the body will adjust caloric intake at other times of the day (or days later) for a given caloric load. So say you eat a bunch of candy earlier in the day and it provides 450 calories.

What you might see is that, later in the day, folks eat a few hundred calories less than they’d normally eat. The body “compensates” for the food you ate earlier. The problem is that most liquid calories aren’t compensated for well and figuring out why is of some interest to researchers.

This is also a big part of why all of the furor over HFCS is mis-placed in my opinion.  The problem isn’t with the HFCS per se, it’s the form that people are getting it which is liquid calories.  Which the body doesn’t compensate for well.  But the body wouldn’t compensate any better for a sucrose containing drink, a glucose containing drink or any other caloric drink.  People just aren’t drinking those.

It’s got nothing to do with the HFCS content per se, it’s got to do with how the human body handles non-milk caloric fluids.  Which is poorly.

Put differently: any high calorie, high sugar liquid would act identically HFCS sweetened beverages.  The HFCS isn’t the problem.  The fact that it’s in a liquid is.

The paper suggests that one of two possible mechanisms may be at stake here. First, we may simply lack a physiological mechanism by which to compensate for liquid calories.  We didn’t evolve consuming them and it would make no logical sense for our bodies to handle them like it handles food.

Second, it may be that liquids are treated essentially like water, being digested/absorbed too quickly to have any subsequent impact on food intake (normally eating food does things hormonally that tends to make you eat less later).

Historical Patterns of Fluid Intake

With that out of the way, the paper examines the majority of fluids consumed by humans from a historical perspective. I’m not going into deep detail for each or this would take pages. While interesting, this really isn’t that relevant to the rest of the paper or how it impacts on things like weight, fat or body composition.

The main take home point of this paper has to do with how the body responds to different beverages. Various lines of research indicate that the intake of calorically sweetened beverages do NOT reduce the intake of solid food (the compensation issue I mentioned above). Reviewing the literature, they basically point out what I wrote above.

Of some interest (especially to me since I like jelly beans) one study compared the intake of 450 kcal or jelly beans to 450 kcal of a soft drink. The jelly bean consumers actually reduced their food intake by slightly more than the 450 calories in the jelly beans (Coming soon: the Jelly Bean Diet) later in the day.

The carb containing soft drink group not only failed to compensate for the drink but also increased their intake of other foods slightly. That is, not only did they get the added calories from the soft-drink, they ate more food as well; a double whammy in terms of weight gain.

Why Is There Weaker Compensation to Liquids?

Continuing on, the paper addresses the issue of why the body shows weaker compensation to some fluids; the exact reason is unknown. The propose that one mechanism is in the way that the GI tract responds to the form of the food.  Solutions can stimulate stronger sensory responses than solid food (e.g. sweet drinks taste sweeter than sweet foods sometimes). As well, the components which make up the beverage or food may play a role.

Obviously the sight and smell of beverages are important, we may react badly to a repugnant or bitter smelling drink and well to a good smelling drink. How drinks affect the taste buds comes next: humans can taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty and something called umami.  There is also a taste bud for fatty acids.

A sickness response to a drink can cause an aversion to foods down the road. Remember when you drank something and you threw up afterwards, and how the smell of that drink would make you gag subsequently? That’s what I’m talking about.

The sight and smell of foods also affects hormonal response, there is something called the cephalic insulin response for example, insulin can go up when people smell or taste sweet foods, long before it hits the bloodstream.  Someone in the comments of one of my articles asked about sugar free drinks and it’s relevant here as they can stimulate insulin response in some folks.  I’ll have to do a full feature on this at a later date.

Then comes digestion where mixing with the other components of the stomach affects many things, including digestion rate. Average digestion rate of fluids is 1 cal/minute with water digesting the most quickly (no calories).  Other drinks digest at relatively slower speeds depending on the composition with fat containing beverages emptying slowest.

Moving into the intestine, more stuff happens including the release of a number of different hormones many of which are involved in appetite. I don’t want to detail this as there are a ton that may play a role here.  I’ve detailed some of them (ghrelin, CCK, PYY) in other articles on the site. The pattern of release of these chemicals depends on the composition of the drink and this is where we can start to see the problem.

Carbohydrates alone stimulate the least number of appetite blunting factors, protein and fat stimulate the release of more. So you’d expect much less of a compensatory response to a drink containing protein and fat (think lowfat milk) as compared to one containing only carbohydrate (think fruit juice or a high sugar soda). Which is exactly what the studies have shown.  Milk shows a nice normal compensation to intake; it’s effectively a liquid “food”.  Sugar sweetened soft drinks show no compensation.

So folks living on sugary drinks are causing themselves major problems. Not only do the drinks themselves have scads of calories, the body doesn’t compensate for their intake. So all of those calories essentially end up being “added” to the normal food intake (which is just as often awful in folks who drink lots of soda).  In some people, the sweet taste seems to drive intake of other sugary foods so it’s a double whammy.

Alcohol is weird as it’s treated strangely in the body.  It also shows a very weird relationship with body weight. Weight often goes up with alcohol intake in men but either stays the same or goes down in women. What few direct studies exist suggest that alcohol intake does not cause compensation of food intake later on. So what explains the gender difference?

It’s probably sociocultural.  As often as not, men drink in addition to eating (beer and wings) while women drink instead of eating (glass of wine for dinner). Oddly, at least one piece of research suggests that regular drinkers may be more active. It may also be that drinkers under-report their true food intake.  At least some work suggests that alcohol may improve insulin sensitivity.  More research is needed to explain what’s going on here.

The paper then concludes but basically just reiterates what I wrote above so I won’t go into it any further.

Practical Application

The bottom line of the paper is this: humans didn’t evolve on anything but water and mother’s milk with other drinks such as alcohol and soft drinks coming into common usage at a much later date. Because of this, we don’t appear to have evolved good mechanisms for dealing with most types of fluid calories.

So what can we do practically with this information?

Liquids tend to digest quickly (although fluids with protein and fat, such as milk, digest much more like food) and carbohydrate only drinks such as soda or juice don’t release as many of the appetite blunting peptides during digestion as whole food (or milk which is a liquid whole food).

This makes the consumption of sugary drinks (fruit juice or soda) a major problem. People don’t compensate for their intake and end up simply adding the massive amount of calories to their diet, which is often bad to begin with.

And, repeating it again, I feel that this is the real problem with the whole high-fructose corn syrup hysteria.  As I noted in the article high fructose corn syrup there is nothing inherently special to HFCS that makes it particularly obesogenic outside of being a source of calories.

Rather, the issue is in the form that HFCS is being so commonly consumed which is in sugar sweetened beverages.  But sweetening those drinks with sucrose or glucose would be just as bad; the sweetener is irrelevant, the problem is that liquid calories are not compensated for.

Ultimately, I don’t think people should be drinking sugar sweetened drinks period.  Whether they are sweetened with HFCS, sucrose or glucose is irrelevant.  Drink diet soda (now the aspartame maniacs will be after me), or water, or sugar free crystal light.

I don’t usually talk in absolutes about nutrition but this is one time I will:

Don’t drink sugar sweetened soda of any form regardless of the sweetener;   They offer nothing to the diet that can’t be had elsewhere and I see no reason for their consumption at all, regardless of what sugar is present.  Despite idiots claiming such, artificial sweeteners are not worse for you than 400 calories of table sugar.   If you need the sweet taste drink diet soda.  Or Crystal light.  Or whatever.

Juice can have its place although I’m not generally a big fan of it for most people.  But for very highly active athletes with enormous energy requirements, liquid calories may provide some benefits since they can make it easier to get sufficient calories.  But juice at least has some nutrients in it.  Sugary soda has none.

As a final take-home comment, I’m reminded of a client I had years ago. He wanted to lose weight and one of the habits I identified in him early was the intake of multiple cans of full-sugar soda. Simply switching him to diet soda saved him something like 800-1000 calories/day, he started losing at a nice 1-2 pounds per week with no other change to his diet.

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23 thoughts on “A Short History of Beverages and How the Body Treats Them

  1. This is an insightful article. Thank-you.

  2. In my youth I would work out for hours on end in public sports and feel like i starved myself 90% of the time. I always struggled with being fat and could never figure out why.

    It was probably the 5-10 cans of soda a day. They are so delicious and easy to consume, and do almost nothing for you.

  3. Good read. I prefer Diet A&W root beer, includes aspartame but not HFCS.

  4. A question that springs to mind after reading this article is the usage of milk as an easy supplement to aid weight gain in leiu of counting calories and then adding real food
    This study would appear to suggest that milk can and does act as a real food due to our evolutionary history. If this is so why should milk prove easier to add than real food for most hardgainers who say they have trouble eating enough due to fullness issues, as it should prove hunger blunting, no?

    my own guess would be that are over reporting their levels of hunger and milk is an easy way for them to find the time and inclination to add calories

    I would be grateful to hear any comments you might have on this issue

  5. Adrien

    Because the recommendation is not just to ‘drink milk’. It’s to ‘add a bunch of milk to what you’re already eating’.

    And this gets into an issue that I’ve discussed in previous articles but will only briefly re-discuss here: ad-lib (uncontrolled) vs. controlled dietary intakes.

    Most of what’s in this article is referring to the general public who, generally (ha ha) are not watching caloric intake. In that case, things that affect spontaneous food intake have pretty measurable effects on food intake. So sugary sodas do nothing but add calories, while things like a higher protein intake typically decrease it.

    However, when you move to controlled food intakes (e.g. people who are counting/monitoring calories), things change. Because things are now being consciously controlled. So if you tell a hardgainer “I want you to keep eating your normal food intake and now add a gallon of milk” that’s very different than saying “Drink a gallon of milk”.

    In the first situation, there is a specific recommendation to ADD the liquid calories to the diet. In the second, you would likely see compensation because they would end up eating less total food because the milk filled them up.


  6. I never really understood why the people who advocate the Paleo lifestyle (and possibly the EF, too) discourage milk consumption. I see a lot of vegetarians in India who can’t get enough protein without dairy sources. I myself use it a lot to give me around 45 grams of protein a day, even though I am not a vegetarian. On top of that, a lot of bodybuilders and sportsmen in India are avid milk drinkers (full-fat only!).

  7. Regarding your recommendation to consume beverages with non-caloric sweeteners, I’m curious as to your take on this study:

    “A Role for Sweet Taste: Calorie Predictive Relations in Energy Regulation by Rats”
    Swithers, Susan E.; Davidson, Terry L.
    Behavioral Neuroscience. Vol 122(1), Feb 2008, 161-173.

    Thanks for another informative and interesting article.

  8. Are you a rat? If the answer is ‘yes’, I’m impressed with your typing and your ability to answer my spam-trap question.

    Assuming the answer is no, why do you care what happens in rats?

    Because what happens in rats often doesn’t have a damn thing to do with what happens in humans.

    See also: CLA, BAT and 99% of supplements that cause fat loss in rats but do jack shit in humans.

  9. How do you think this would apply to protein shakes? Anecdotally, people suggest weight gain shakes to “hard gainers.” Maybe they act half-way between milk sugary drinks–appetite compensates for the whey but not for all the maltodextrine and dextrose.

  10. What about the carbonation in sodas,…can it add to your waist size?

  11. How in the world could it possibly do something like that? It’s bubbles.

  12. Some lady at work told me about how she quit drinking carbonated sodas after she read that carbonated soft drinks work on your stomach the same way they do in the bottle/can if its shaken,..the gas pressure blowing up the stomach a little bit like a balloon. But it sounds like hogwash to me so I figured I’d ask you before I believed it. She said she lost 2 inches on her waist after she quit drinking diet soda for 2 weeks. It might be an urban legend but there sure are lots of articles about it. So – I assume it’s just muscle comic quackery?

  13. Maybe if she were drinking regular (e.g. full calorie soda).

  14. So in theory then , even a bodybuilder on his/her conest diet could do fine with drinking diet soda every day? It doesn’t do anything bad for you worse than drinking a glass of water if i keep it under 4-5 cans a day? I ask because I used to practically inhaled the stuff for years..then all this talk about carbonated sodas effecting gastric emptying, causing bloating, abdominal distention, rotting your teeth out, aspartame, etc . scared me off the stuff. I miss it cause it really made my dieting easier.

  15. Hi Lyle,

    In regards to sweeteners, are you able to post a separate topic?

    For 8 years I maintained a low calorie diet and turned to artificially sweetened foods containing the sugar substitute phenylalanine (an amino acid). I read a lot of articles on this and refused to believe it was bad for me until I stumbled upon an article that made complete sense.

    This effected my diet and energy levels severely and after quitting diet coke etc for just a few weeks, my body started going back to normal – which seemed miraculous at the time. In this short period after stopping the sweeteners, I also got off a whole bunch of drugs that were given to me by doctors to counteract all these severe problems I was having and felt fantastic. Previously, I was not able to do this for more than a couple of days.

    The sweetener was breaking down into poisons in my system, including methanol. This explained many of my poisoning symptoms such as excessive alcohol consumption (ethanol is an antidote to methanol); struggling to digest food because of a depletion of enzymes; physical depression and many others.

    Since I do not have links to scientific papers, it would be great to see something concrete from you.

  16. So interesting. In my experience as a female when I was partying a lot and drinking multiple times per week (binge drinking) I was very skinny. I did drink “instead” of eat. I dont drink as much now but have put on just a little weight. When I did drink a lot I would skip dinner if I knew I was drinking and I wouldnt eat anything until the next day even if I was hungry. This is partly because I knew the alcohol was going to add a lot of calories to my evening, so I planned to compensate for it consciously. Also I cant eat and drink at the same time as there is simply no room in my stomach for solids while I have alcohol in my system.
    I am wondering about coffee and tea. I have been drinking coffee and tea (coffee = cream/honey, tea = milk/cane sugar) for years. I wonder if the added milk products make it more food like, or the fact that its still a “sugar” beverage makes it a bad choice. I guess in my case it may not make a difference since I have always counted calories and I dont drink tea or coffee unless its a replacement for food (I dont drink it if im NOT hungry, and I save an appetite so I can have it), I guess much like the way I treat alcohol. I know it has calories, so to me it counts as food calories, so I consciously compensate for it throughout the day. Theres no way to know, but I wonder how that affects my body comp nowadays.

  17. “So you’d expect much less of a compensatory response to a drink containing protein and fat (think lowfat milk) as compared to one containing only carbohydrate” Is this badly writen?Compensatory respones=body regulates calories based on what you ate

  18. I give up, is it?

  19. Yes, you wrote the opposite of what you meant. You’d expect much MORE of a compensatory response to a drink containing protein and fat as compared to one containing only carbohydrate.

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