Sugary Soft Drinks May Increase Liver Cancer Risks Among Women, Harvard Researchers Warn

The researchers do not know if drinking sugary drinks causes liver cancer, or is just an indicator of unhealthy living that already increases that risk

New research suggests there may be a link between drinking sugary soft drinks and liver cancer, indicating women who consume one more or more servings of soda, fruit juices, sports drinks, or other sugar-sweetened beverages every day were nearly 80% more likely to be diagnosed with liver cancer.

The findings of the new study were presented last week at the online meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, and are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, they add to the growing concerns about the side effects of sugary soft drinks widely consumed by Americans.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health studied more than 90,000 postmenopausal women between the ages of 50 and 79 years old who took part in the Women’s Health Initiative. The participants completed questionnaires in the mid-1990s and were tracked for 18 years. Half were followed longer; half were followed for less time.

Overall, 7% of participants reported drinking one or more 12-ounce servings of sugary drinks per day. A total of 205 women developed liver cancer during follow-up.

The data indicates women who drank one or more servings of sugary drinks each day had a 78% increased risk of developing liver cancer compared to those who drank none.

Women who drank at least one soft drink, or soda, per day had a 73% higher risk of developing liver cancer, compared with those who never consumed soda or had less than three per month.

Overall consumption of sugary beverages declined in the U.S. from 2003 to 2018, but intake of sugar-sweetened beverages still remains high. From 2017 to 2018, 65% of adults reported consuming at least some sweetened drinks on any given day.

The findings of this study can’t prove sugary drinks cause liver cancer, but indicate there may be a link between the two.

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Reducing sugary beverages may help reduce the incidence of liver cancer. However, it is difficult to tell if sugary drinks cause liver cancer or are signals of a lifestyle that leads to other health risks that may contribute to cancer.

Drinking sugary beverages increases the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, which are both risk factors for liver cancer. Both also contribute to an impaired insulin response and buildup of fat in the liver. Drinking sugary beverages is a modifiable risk factor that can be changed to help improve health.

The study design does not conclusively indicate if sugary beverages are a driver of liver cancer or simply an indicator of an already unhealthy lifestyle. They may eat fewer fruits and vegetables, eat less fiber, eat more fast food or red meat which are also risk factors for liver cancer.

Researchers said further research is needed to understand if the cancer relationship is mediated by changes in the liver from obesity or if the effect is independent of weight gain.

Overall, sugary beverages like soda and fruit drinks have no nutritional value and contribute to obesity and other chronic disease. It would be better to consume less of those beverages and drink more water, seltzer, and herbal teas, nutrition experts say.

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