Straightening out the sugar story

The “fact” that soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are the biggest source of calories in the U.S. diet has been bandied about quite a bit lately, most recently in Mark Bittman’s otherwise excellent Opinionator piece, “Coke Blinks,” for The New York Times yesterday. The fact is…that fact’s just not true. As you can see in the pie chart above, soda, energy drinks and sports drinks together are the largest source of sugar in the U.S. diet, at 35.7% of sugar calories consumed.
When it comes to which type of edible consumable makes up the biggest source of calories in the U.S. diet, that would be grain-based desserts (see table below). Some of those calories come from sugar, true, but cookies, cakes, pies, doughnuts and the like contain a lot of fat calories as well as general carbohydrate calories from the grains. You’ll notice that soda/energy/sports drinks claim the number 3 or 4 spot, depending on age group.
These images come directly from the PDF of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is downloadable for free if you want to peruse it yourself, and find out what the rest of the top 25 sources of calories are. The 2010 guidelines are the most recent; the 2015 guidelines are currently being developed.
Now, while I’m quibbling with the details, as I’ve explained, I’m not arguing that it’s a good idea to gulp down soda and its sugary kin. Far from it. They are nothing more than empty calories, and most of us don’t need more empty calories, especially if we enjoy eating dessert sometimes. I think we get more pleasure and satisfaction from eating our calories than drinking them, so for hydration, water is the best beverage, hands down.
It should go without saying that these statistics are population statistics. The are an average of what individual people do. That means for every person like me, who doesn’t drink any sodas, energy drinks or sports drinks (other than one diet soda a year, which just serves to remind me that I don’t miss soda), there’s someone who’s downing six 20-ounce sugary colas a day. Or something like that. Now that’s a big problem!