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Workplace ban on sale of sugary drinks can lead to health improvements, study finds

The study found that such a ban tends to lead to employees experiencing improvements in how their body responds to the hormone insulin, most likely because of the reduction in belly fat.

soft drink
Many workers — whether lean, overweight or obese — who reduced their consumption of sugary drinks experienced a decrease in insulin resistance.
Photo by Ben Kolde on Unsplash

Stopping the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages at the workplace can have a significant effect on reducing employees’ waistlines, according to a small but intriguing study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The study found that such a ban also tends to lead to employees experiencing improvements in how their body responds to the hormone insulin, most likely because of the reduction in belly fat.

“A workplace sugar-sweetened beverage sales ban, especially if combined with a brief intervention, may be a feasible and effective way to improve employee health,” the study’s authors conclude.

As background information in the study points out, sugar-sweetened beverages (defined as sodas, sports or energy drinks, “fruit” drinks and sweetened coffees and bottled teas) make up 34 percent of the added sugars in the American diet and have been identified as an important risk factor for obesity and cardiometabolic diseases, most notably type 2 diabetes.

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For that reason, current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that Americans eliminate or reduce their consumption of these beverages.

Many private and public employers are trying to nudge their workers away from such products, primarily by encouraging better beverage choices. But as the authors of the current study note, “simply promoting healthy products without removing unhealthy, hyperpalatable alternatives from the environment may dampen health outcomes, particularly for individuals challenged by hedonic drives to consume sugar.”

How the study was done

The new study involved 202 employees (average age: 41) who worked at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), an institution that implemented a ban on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages across all its campuses and medical facilities in 2015. The group was ethnically diverse, and most of the participants (124) were women. Slightly more than a third (77) held service or technical jobs.

Twenty-nine percent of the men and 47 percent of the women were obese.

All the study’s participants underwent health assessments before the UCSF ban went into effect and then again 10 months later. The tests included ones that measured insulin resistance (considered a major driver behind type 2 diabetes), as well as waist circumference. The participants also filled out questionnaires about their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Half of the participants were then randomly assigned to receive a brief motivational intervention — a 15-minute meeting with a health educator about the health risks associated with sugar intake, particularly from the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. These participants were encouraged to set a personal goal for reducing their intake of sugary drinks. The educator made brief “booster” telephone calls to each participant three more times during the study.

Cutting consumption in half

Before the UCSF ban was put into place, the study’s participants drank an average of 35 ounces of sugared drinks daily (the equivalent of three cans of soda). Ten months after the ban’s implementation, that average amount had fallen by almost 50 percent, to 18 ounces a day.

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The decrease was even more stunning among the group who had received the intervention. Their consumption of sugary drinks plummeted by an average of 25.4 ounces, to 9.6 ounces a day. That’s a drop of more than 70 percent.

Those changes occurred even though the ban did not prevent employees from drinking sugar-sweetened drinks at home — or at work. The ban removed sugary drinks from campus vending machines, break rooms and cafeterias, but employees could still bring them to work from home or buy them at an off-campus location.

Shrinking waistlines

As the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages decreased, so did the waistlines of many of the employees. Just 10 months after the ban went into place, almost 70 percent of the study’s participants had lost belly fat. Their waistlines shrank by an average of 2.1 centimeters — slightly less than one inch.

The average weight of the participants did not change, although most of the people who saw their waistlines contract lost some weight.

Many workers — whether lean, overweight or obese — who reduced their consumption of sugary drinks also experienced a decrease in insulin resistance. That finding may have significant health implications, given that insulin resistance is considered a major driver behind type 2 diabetes and other cardiometabolic conditions.

‘Easy to pull off’

The study comes with limitations. It did not have a control group — employees at an institution that did not implement a ban on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages. Also, the study’s participants self-reported their consumption of sugary drinks, and such reports can be unreliable.

Still, the findings are impressive.

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“The natural trend over a year is to gain a small amount of weight and abdominal fat,” says Elissa Epel, the study’s lead author and director of the UCSF Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center, in a released statement. “Thus, it is encouraging we saw no average weight gain and a reduction in waist.”

“This is one potential workplace solution to the growing epidemic of obesity-related disease in America that is easy to pull off,” adds Laura Schmidt, the study’s senior author and a professor at the UCSF School of Medicine.

“Instead of sugary sodas, workplaces can offer their employees flavored waters, sparking water, and unsweetened coffees and teas,” she adds. “They can also encourage people to drink water by installing attractive filtered-water dispensing stations, such as we increasingly see in airports and other public facilities.”

The researchers are currently conducting a larger controlled study on the health effects of a sales ban of sugary drinks across several hospital campuses.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the JAMA Internal Medicine website.