Which is worse, a Coke or a Snickers?

Wellthy adjective - characterized by focusing on good habits to make it easier to make healthy choices to have a balanced, healthy life that includes enjoying simple pleasures without guilt.

Years ago, I sought the advice of a personal trainer. His name was Roland, and he was from Croatia. Roland was not very big or muscular. Nevertheless, he demonstrated his prowess by standing a few feet away from me and administering a Van Damme-style kick where his foot stopped one inch from my face. He had an accent that reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In addition to giving me advice for physical training, he also gave me diet advice. Here is a memorable conversation we had.

Roland: “You need to walk more at work.”

BW: “Sure, I do that every day when I walk down to Burger King for lunch.”

Roland: “What?! No more Burger King.” This sounded like “buhrgur keeng”

BW: “Okay fine, but what about Subway?”

Roland: “Subway maybe but it depends what you get. I went to Subway for a sandwich, and they ask me if I want a ‘value meal.’ I ask, ‘what is this?’ They say, ‘chips and a soda.’ I say, ‘Where is the extra value in that?’”

If you ask a doctor or personal trainer or health coach, which is better between a Coke and a Snickers, they will likely snicker and say both are bad and stay away from them. As a general rule, we know that sugary drinks and candy are both the wrong fuel for our bodies. These items have “empty calories,” which means lots of sugar and few nutrients.

Well, part of being wellthy is indulging in the simple pleasures. Some people might want a Snickers bar or an ice-cold Classic Coke. Of course, after eating a King Size Snickers bar, you’ll be thirsty, so why not wash it down with a Coke? Be prepared for the sugar rush and crash soon to follow. Not every day, indeed not all the time but sparingly and once in a blue moon. If you had to choose between the two, which is the lesser of two evils?

I will use a 20-oz bottle of classic Coca-Cola because if you’re going to have a Coke, you might as well go for the 20-oz bottle instead of the 12-oz can. I will use a King Size Snickers bar because you know a regular size is just not enough. I know they have “fun size” Snickers, but who eats just one of those? By the way, it is much more fun to eat a King Size Snickers than a “fun size” Snickers anyway (unless you eat the whole bag of fun-size Snickers).

Here is the comparison based on the nutrition facts.

Some might say this is an apples-to-oranges comparison because the Snickers bar has 11g of fat and 4g of protein, whereas Coke has no fat or protein. Still, let’s examine the calories, carbs, and sugar.

Even though the calories are comparable, Coke is the king when it comes to sugar. One teaspoon of sugar is about 4g. A 20-oz can of Coke has 16 teaspoons of sugar while the Snickers bar has just under six teaspoons of sugar. By the way, a 12-oz can of Coke has 140 calories and 39g of sugar. Even the "mini" 7.5 oz Coke has 25g of sugar, which is still more sugar than the King Size Snickers!

While you are still reeling from the amount of sugar, consider also the type of sugar. Glucose is the primary sugar that the body uses to make energy. Fructose is a natural sugar found in fruit. Coke contains high fructose corn syrup (typically 55% fructose, 45% glucose), while the Snickers bar contains regular sugar (sucrose), which is 50/50 glucose/fructose. For a very detailed discussion about fructose and the effects of different sugars in the body, I point you to this episode of Dr. Peter Attia’s podcast The Drive.

There are many key differences in how our bodies process fructose (fruit sugar) and standard sugar (glucose). One of the key differences is that eating fructose will actually trigger changes in the body that will favor the storage of energy. Animals that hibernate for the winter will chow down as many fruits as possible right before they hibernate to store up fat for the winter. I guess bears have the right idea, except for Coke's polar bear mascot who probably gets compensated with unlimited fountain Coke. 

Research suggests that our bodies are less aware of excessive intake when the calories are liquid. You can drink way more calories (and sugar) than you can eat. Can you imagine sitting down and eating 16 teaspoons of sugar? One medium banana has 14g of sugar. You would need to eat four bananas to approach the amount of sugar in a 20 oz Coke. At least bananas are natural foods that have fiber and other nutrients.

Aside - I am reminded of a great joke by the late comedian Mitch Hedberg. Someone asked me if I wanted a frozen banana. I said, "No" but I want a regular banana later so "Yes."

Why do Coke and other sugary drinks have so much sugar? We are born with taste receptors built-in for sweetness. Children, in particular, tend to like sweeter foods. When I was a kid, I was able to eat a giant bowl of Lucky Charms (Cool Whip container) no problem, and all I wanted was more marshmallows. Did you know you can buy packages of just Lucky Charms marshmallows? The last time I had a bowl of Lucky Charms as an adult, I was shocked by how sweet it tasted.

According to the book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (affiliate link), the food industry uses scientific studies to determine the sweet spot of our taste preferences. The technical term is bliss point--the precise amount of sweetness, no more and no less, that makes food and drinks more enjoyable. Coke has the exact amount of sugar scientifically determined to be the ideal amount that makes it taste the best and keeps us wanting more.

I picked on Coke because that was my go-to drink back in the day. A good friend of mine used to work for Coca Cola, and he had access to pure fountain Coke on tap. I don’t know who started it, but nowadays we refer to Coke as Bloke. I suppose that can be confusing if I say, “I’m going to have a Bloke with a bloke.”

According to many people, the fountain Coke at McDonald’s is the best there is, and there are a few reasons. The Coke recipe is a secret kept in a vault at the world headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. The formula is not patented because the patent would require the ingredients to be listed. Coke keeps the secret by producing and delivering syrup to restaurants and convenience stores. Most restaurants receive the syrup in plastic bags. McDonald’s syrup is stored in stainless steel tanks that preserve the flavor and protect the syrup from temperature, light, and air. McDonald’s also uses an advanced water filtration system at every location to ensure consistency. McDonald’s also pre-chills their syrup and the water to ensure that the drink is ice-cold from the beginning. Finally, McDonald’s mixes its syrup-to-water ratio to account for ice melt so that the Coke still tastes good even after some of the ice has melted. So, if you’re going to have a fountain Coke, you might as well head to the golden arches (turquoise arches in Sedona, AZ). Just don’t copy President Trump’s meal of two Big Macs, two Fillet-O-Fish, and a chocolate malted.

I can’t remember the last time I had a Classic Coke. If I get the craving for a Bloke, I make it a Coke Zero (the Bloke Hero), which I prefer to Diet Coke. Artificial sweeteners have their own issues, but at least diet soda doesn’t have all the sugar and calories.

What about fruit juice? A 16-oz bottle of Tropicana orange juice is 220 calories, 52g of carbohydrates, and 44g of sugar. At least you are getting some vitamins and minerals with orange juice, but that’s still a lot of sugar.

Bottom line: Sugary drinks are one of the worst evils. Drink them at your own risk.

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary. —Nassim Taleb

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