Excessive belly fat is a common problem for most people that this area has typically been the target of exercise routines. The reason why this particular body zone is prone to fat accumulation is varied, but a group of experts found that drinking soda and sugary drinks daily could be one of the major culprits.

Researchers from the Framingham Heart Study discovered that there is a direct relationship between higher consumption of sweetened beverages and increased development of what is known as visceral fat.

Visceral fat in the midsection covers the internal organs such as the pancreas and liver. Such type of fat also affects how certain hormones like insulin function in the body. Impairments in insulin levels and the body being resistant to insulin are tightly linked to type 2 diabetes and increased risk of heart disease.

"There is evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages with cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes," says lead author Dr. Caroline S. Fox, who is formerly from the Framingham Heart Study of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

For the study, the researchers were able to gather a total of 1,003 participants with an average age of 45 years old, almost 50 percent of whom were females. The subjects answered food questionnaires and underwent CT scans before and after the experiments to determine body fat modifications.

The authors then ranked the study subjects into four groups: non-drinkers, occasional drinkers, frequent drinkers and daily drinkers.

Occasional drinkers are those that consume sugary drinks once a month or less than once per week. Frequent drinkers are defined as those who drink sweetened beverages once per week or less than once daily.

The researchers conducted a follow-up investigation after six years and found increases in visceral fat volumes as follows: 658 cubic centimeters (40.15 cubic inches) for non-drinkers, 649 cubic centimeters (39.6 cubic inches) for occasional drinkers, 707 cubic centimeters (43.14 cubic inches) for frequent drinkers and 852 cubic centimeters (51.99 cubic inches) for daily drinkers.

These results were independent of the study subjects' gender, age, physical exercise, body mass index and other factors.

Diet sodas are marketed as low-calories and low-sugar alternatives to regular sodas. The authors also delved into how such a drink variant affects visceral body fat and found no association at all.

The exact mechanism behind the findings is not exactly known, but the study's co-leader Dr. Jiantao Ma, from National Institutes of Health, said that added sugars may partly be responsible for insulin resistance and hormonal impairments associated with increased type 2 diabetes and heart disease risks.

In the newest U.S. dietary guideline, experts recommend that an American adult must limit added sugars to only 10 percent of the overall average daily calorie intake. Such recommendation amounts to about 12 teaspoons of sugar. A can of Coke contains 10 teaspoons.

"Our findings are in line with current dietary guidelines that suggest limiting the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages," says Ma.

In the end, Fox recommends that people adhere to the current dietary guidelines and to look after the amount of added sugars they consume every day.

The study was published in the journal Circulation on Monday.

Photo: Dan McKay | Flickr

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