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What is Moderation?

New study suggests moderation may mean a lot less than you might think.

What is Moderation?

Recently I found myself justifying an ice-cold soda because I’d exercised quite a bit that day, and I am sure I am not alone in this behavior. It’s easy to fall into the trap where you think that physical activity protects you from the negative impacts of the occasional indulgence—everything in moderation, right? After all, study after study has shown that physical activity is cardioprotective, meaning if you meet national exercise guidelines (>150 min of moderate physical activity per week or >75 min of vigorous activity), you are more protected from heart disease like strokes, heart attacks and heart failure.

However, a recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition caught my attention—for the first time, researchers looked at the combination of physical activity and consuming sugary drinks—rather than looking at them independently—to see if exercise would overcome the negative health impact of consuming extra sugar in the form of sugary beverages.

Can You “Outrun” Sugar?

The study’s findings are well-supported as the researchers analyzed a large amount of data. After controlling for all the extra variables like body weight, smoking, age, etc. they discovered something quite fascinating— people who reported that they met exercise guidelines and consumed 2 or more sugary drinks per week were still at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease compared to those who met exercise guidelines and did not consume sugary drinks. This suggests that while exercise is cardioprotective, it’s not an end-all-be-all to make up for an unhealthy diet. There’s an old saying in the sports nutrition world that “you can’t outrun a bad diet.”  Well, this study seems to suggest that is true.

There are a couple of caveats here—first, “2 or more sugary drinks per week” represents a pretty large range, as technically, this category would include people consuming anywhere from two to upwards of 20 sugary drinks a week. Furthermore, the authors did not include pure fruit juices in the sugary drinks category, so it’s unknown if this association exists for someone who consumes a lot of fruit juice and is physically active. And interestingly, there was a middle group in the analyses, who met physical activity guidelines and reported only consuming 1 to 4 sugary drinks per month—and these people did not appear to be at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Remaining Questions Relating to Sugary Drinks, Exercise and Heart Health

Now, this study is far from conclusive, and it only looks at correlation and not causation, but it does raise some interesting points and leaves me with a few additional questions. I’d love to know if there was a specific type of physical activity that was more protective than others. Does resistance training provide more protection from cardiovascular disease if you consume sugary drinks regularly? Interestingly, many serious endurance athletes rely on fueling and recovering using sugary drinks, I can’t help but wonder how this impacts cardiovascular disease risk as well.

My biggest takeaway from this study is that moderation can mean many different things to different people. However, when you look at the risk of cardiovascular disease when combined with exercise, this study suggests that consuming 1 to 4 sugary drinks per month doesn’t raise the risk, but going above that may. I believe this might be what moderation looks like when it comes to sugary drinks, which is to say, not much. These findings should remind you of the potential health risks associated with sugary drink consumption, even if you are physically active.