Consuming Sweetened Beverages Raise Risk for Liver Disease and Cancer in Women, Study Says

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
August 31, 2023
Fruit Smoothies

Sugar has been vilified for decades. Refined (or processed) sugar as lacks nutrients, making high sugar foods essentially empty calories that contribute malnutrition. And high sugar consumption also has been linked to dental problems, obesity and heart disease. 

But that’s not the only problem. The cost of sugar is rising, leading some food manufacturers to use more affordable sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). And while HFCS is effective in controlling food costs and inflation, regular consumption of it raises the risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, high bad cholesterol, high triglycerides and inflammation.

Other food manufacturers took a different approach, instead relying on sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners to produce low sugar and sugar free varieties of foods. However, studies began suggesting that artificial sweeteners may be causing more harm than good. As a result, many people returned to sugary foods and drinks.

In fact, about 65 percent of American adults have at least one sugary beverage, be it a regular soda, sweetened fruit drink, energy/sports drinks or sweetened coffee/tea daily, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And many of these drinks, particularly soft drinks, are addictive. The large quantities of sugar cause a “rush”, releasing hormones that activate the reward centers of our brain, triggering feelings of euphoria and strong cravings.

Another problem with sugary drinks is that they can damage the liver. Women who consumed sugar sweetened beverage every day had higher risk of developing liver cancer and chronic liver disease, according to study published in JAMA.

“This is the first study to look at the correlation between sweetened beverages and liver disease, says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “It’s an important question, as the incidence of cirrhosis and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease have increased substantially over the past decade and new liver cancer cases and liver cancer deaths are expected to rise 55 and 56 percent respectively, over the next 20 years.”  

In this study, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Mass General Brigham healthcare system reviewed nearly 100,000 records of post-menopausal women between 50 and 79 years of age enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative conducted between 1993 and 1998 at 40 clinical centers in the U.S. They evaluated self-reported data on the women’s three-year consumption of soft drinks, fruit drinks and artificially sweetened beverages and then followed these women until March 1, 2020 -- an average of 20 years.

Researchers tracked self-reported cases and deaths from liver cancer because of liver diseases such as fibrosis, cirrhosis and chronic hepatitis and then verified data using medical records and the National Death Index. At the end of the 20 years, almost 99,000 women were included in the final analysis. About seven percent of these women drank one or more sugar sweetened beverages daily and had an 85 percent higher risk for liver cancer and 68 percent higher risk from chronic liver disease, compared with women who had less than three sugar sweetened drinks per month.

“Even though the study was observational and didn’t cause and effect, the researchers’ goal is to incorporate these findings into public health strategy. Hopefully, health promotion campaigns will focus on liver health via lower sugar consumption,” says Kaminetsky. “Of course, you should take matters into your own hands now.”

Tips to Help Control Your Sugar Intake

There are a few steps you can take to help control your daily sugar consumption. For instance, you can:

  • Read nutrition labels. This lets you know what you’re eating.
  • Recognize the names of sugar. Yes, this may sound odd, but there are at least 65 names for sugar
  • Track your sugar intake. American Heart Association recommends men limiting their added sugar consumption to nine teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) per day; for women, it’s six teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories).
  • Skip foods and beverages known for the high sugar content like desserts, sodas, smoothies, energy drinks, specialty coffees and sweet cereals. 
  • Eat whole foods. Processed foods tend to have more sugar, salt and fat added to them to improve flavor and texture. Good choices of whole foods include fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts/seeds, yogurt, whole grains, (e.g., quinoa, whole wheat couscous, brown rice, whole grain bread) and meat/fish/poultry.
  • Select natural sugar alternatives. Instead of sweetening foods and beverages with sugar or artificial sweetener, try these natural alternatives instead.

Of course, you may still be eating too much sugar, even if you’re watching your intake. Some tell-tale signs of high sugar consumption include: 

  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling jittery or anxious
  • Feeling shaky, lightheaded or dizzy
  • Hunger
  • Bloating

If you’re experiencing these symptoms or need help cutting dietary sugar, talk to your doctor. If you don’t have a doctor, consider joining an MDVIP-affiliated practice. An MDVIP-affiliated physician has the time and tools to help you focus on a healthier diet. 

Looking for a primary care physician? Find an MDVIP affiliate near you and begin your partnership in health »


About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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