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Women who drink sugary sodas at higher risk for liver cancer, study suggests

colorful bottles of soda pop on store shelf

In the age of the infernal heatwave, sugary drinks full of ice can be awfully tempting, particularly if these refreshments are all that’s immediately available to quench one’s thirst. But beware, according to a new study from the University of Carolina, if you’re a postmenopausal woman who consumes one or more of these sugary beverages a day, you could be increasing your risk of developing liver cancer by 78 percent.

Increasing cancer cases

The study comes at a time when the number of people in the United States developing liver cancer has steadily grown over the past 30 years. And this isn’t the only cause of concern.

Usually, liver cancer develops in patients who have risky conditions or factors like chronic hepatitis, alcoholism, or diabetes. But this sharp increase also comes with another problem: 40 percent of all liver cancer cases in the country now present with no established risk factor or cause – significantly impeding research and innovation in the field.

The researchers from the University of Carolina aimed to determine the missing risk factors to solve the cause of this dramatic rise. They hoped to do this by concentrating on one specific cross-section of people and one suspected source of the disease, in this case, sugar-laden drinks.

The reason for this is that the consumption of these beverages is so prolific that even though the regular intake of sugar-sweetened fruit drinks and soda has decreased over the years, it is still widespread. Linked to a multitude of health issues, over two-thirds of caucasian adults in the U.S. reported consuming these beverages on any given day in 2017–2018.

To verify these findings, researchers from multiple institutions analyzed data from over 90,000 postmenopausal women aged 50 to 79. Overall results showed those who drank at least one sugary drink every day had a marked increased risk of getting liver cancer compared with those who drank less than three servings of these beverages every month.

“Our findings suggest sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is a potential modifiable risk factor for liver cancer,” said Longgang Zhao, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student at the University of South Carolina. “If our findings are confirmed, reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption might serve as a public health strategy to reduce liver cancer burden. Replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with water, and non-sugar-sweetened coffee or tea could significantly lower liver cancer risk.”

90,000 participants

The team acquired the trial data from the ‘Women’s Health Initiative,’ a long-term study started in the early 1990s. Here postmenopausal women were asked to fill out a questionnaire recording their dietary habits in the middle of the 1990s, after which researchers followed them for the next 19 years. At the end of the study, the researchers collated the results to glean how much sugar-sweetened drinks the women were consuming, correlating the data with medical records to check for the diagnosis of liver cancer.

They found that seven percent of all participants consumed one or more 12-ounce (355ml) servings of sugary drinks daily and that 205 of these women developed liver cancer.

After analyzing this subsection of women, they discovered that those who consumed one or more sugary drinks daily increased their risk of developing liver cancer by 78%. And those who consumed at least one soft drink per day were 73% more likely to develop liver cancer than those who never consumed these beverages or consumed less than three servings per month.

Unhealthy lifestyles

However, despite their large data pool, the researchers are adamant that their study is purely observational and cannot concretely state whether sugar-sweetened drinks are the primary driver of liver cancer in these women. They add that the consumption of these drinks may indicate the presence of other unhealthy lifestyle factors or confounders that could potentially lead to liver cancer.

Zhang explained to HealthDay News that “This type of design limits our ability to determine if sugar-sweetened beverages are a primary driver of increased liver cancer incidence, or if sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is only an indicator of unhealthy lifestyles,” Zhang said. “Our findings should be interpreted with caution and replicated in future studies.”

He also adds that the study doesn’t investigate the risk for liver cancer among men or younger people who consume these beverages – consumers of these beverages with alcohol.

Samantha Heller, a senior nutritionist at NYU Langone Health who was not part of the study, agrees it’s hard to know from these results if the relationship between sugar-sweetened beverages and liver cancer isn’t due to other lifestyle factors.

She tells HealthDay News, “The question is: What are the lifestyles of the people who consume at least one 12-ounce sugar-sweetened beverage a day?” And asks, “Is this population more likely to consume less fiber, fewer fruits and vegetables, and more likely to eat more red and processed meat, junk and fast food, and less likely to exercise?”

Heller adds that there’s also an apparent discrepancy between consuming one or more sugar-sweetened beverages daily and drinking three monthly servings.

“All of this said, sodas, fruit drinks, and other sugar-sweetened beverages have no nutritional value, contribute to overweight and obesity and several associated chronic diseases,” she stated.

“There is no reason to be drinking them other than we have become used to doing so, and are encouraged to continue drinking them by media and advertising campaigns.” She goes on that soft, unsweetened drinks such as water, seltzer, teas, herbal teas, or even 100% fruit juice with water or seltzer is a healthier choice.

The researchers conclude they plan to host studies involving men and younger women to examine the association between these beverages and liver cancer more thoroughly.

Zhao presented the research results at NUTRITION 2022 LIVE ONLINE, the American Society for Nutrition’s flagship annual conference held June 14–16. Zhao co-authored the research with Xuehong Zhang, an associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

Michelle Petersen View All

Michelle is a health industry veteran who taught and worked in the field before training as a science journalist.

Featured by numerous prestigious brands and publishers, she specializes in clinical trial innovation--expertise she gained while working in multiple positions within the private sector, the NHS, and Oxford University.

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