About two years ago, Park Hyung-jun was told by his doctor that he should stop drinking coke. The 32-year-old used to have three cans of coke a day – one after every meal.
“I loved the sensation of carbonation and the sweet taste,” he told The Korea Herald. “It felt like drinking coke helped digestion. It was just a nice way of finishing meals, especially heavy ones. ”
Kim developed his love for coke while he was serving his military duty about five years ago. Coke became a daily necessity for him then, and this continued for over three years. “I’d feel anxious whenever I ran out of it in my fridge,” he said.
A recent government study has shown that many South Koreans eat too much sugar, particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages such as coke.
The report revealed that as of 2013, the sugar consumption of Koreans aged 3-29 was alarmingly high, accounting for more than 10 percent of their daily calorie intake.
The largest proportion of the surveyed Koreans -- 31 percent -- was consuming sugar by drinking sugary beverages, including soda, sports and energy drinks.
For Park, his daily habit of drinking coke had to come to an end as it started to take a toll on his health. He gained more than 10 kilograms and developed four serious cavities that required him to get dental implants. The dental procedure cost him about 4 million won ($3,427).
According to the World Health Organization, the high consumption of such drinks can lead to an unhealthy diet, weight gain and increased risk of chronic diseases. Dental problems are also the most prevalent symptom worldwide and its treatment cost is expensive, leaving people vulnerable to pain, anxiety and tooth loss, according to the agency.
Other local and overseas studies have also shown that sugary drinks increase the risk of a number of diseases, especially heart disease, gout and diabetes. According to a report by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the U.S., people who consume sugar-sweetened drinks regularly -- one to two cans a day or more -- have a 26 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who rarely drink such drinks.
The report cited a 22-year study of 80,000 women, which found that those who drank a can of sugary drink daily had a 75 percent higher risk of gout than women who did not.
In its measures against sugar released last month, South Korea set guidelines to cut down on schoolchildren purchasing certain food products with high sugar levels. It also advised that carbonated drinks and coffee be removed from school vending machines.
“We plan to collaborate with the Education Ministry and the state-run Center for Children’s Foodservice Management to better educate young children on healthy diets and protect them from the health risks of carbonated soft drinks,” said an official from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.
Park said he has lost more than 5 kilograms since he cut coke from his diet. He explained that he had also started to take bolder moves to improve his health such as by not drinking and changing his job that had previously required long work hours. “I definitely feel healthier,” he said.
A 2012 U.S. study published in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that when individuals are sleep deprived, their reward activation centers in the brain are in fact greater, thereby making it more difficult to resist sweets.
Even in Korea’s traditional medicine, obesity is viewed as a condition that is often caused by consuming too much greasy or sweet foods, physical inactivity, stress and the lack of “gi” – the vital energy that corresponds to the functions of an organ. When there is not enough gi in the body, waste fluids in the digestive system cannot be transformed properly which may result in weight gain and physical fatigue.
“I think sugar and its taste are more addictive than other nutrients in general,” said Jang Dong-hyuk, a doctor of Korean medicine. “But there is a difference between sugar in natural foods such as watermelon and sugar contained in processed foods such as deserts. Not all sugar is bad – even rice contains sugar – and I think it’s important to differentiate what’s potentially harmful and what’s not.”
Park said he still loves the carbonated drink, and indulges his coke habit sometimes. “I’ve made my own rules,” he said. “I only drink it when I go out for movies. I love the taste and I don’t want to give it up.”
By Claire Lee