It worked for salt. Why not sugar?

A new study from researchers at Queen Mary University of London concludes that thousands of lives could be improved if we reduce the amount of added sugar in popular beverages.

The study, released today in the journal the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, estimates the reduction could prevent 1 million cases of obesity and about 300,000 cases of type 2 diabetes over two decades.

In 2004, the U.K. Food Standards Agency began a public health campaign and worked with food producers to lower salt levels in foods by 40 percent over five years. New York State has enacted similar salt reduction initiatives.

Using that experience as a backdrop, the Queen Mary research team combed through four years of nutrition data to calculate the effects of weening Brits off sugar. They found the average person would consume about 38 fewer calories per day by the end of the fifth year. This, in turn, would mean the average person would lose about 2.6 pounds.

But instead of immediately reducing sugar content, researchers recommend slowly weening people off the substance by gradually lowering levels over a five-year period. The researchers pointed to previous research that shows calories lost from sugary beverages rarely return to a person’s diet in other forms. 

“The proposed strategy could lead to a profound reduction in energy intake from sugar-sweetened beverages and could therefore lower the prevalence of overweight, obesity, and type 2 diabetes in the long term,” the researchers wrote in their study. “These findings provide strong support for the implementation of the proposed strategy.”

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Could Sugar Restrictions Come to the U.S.?

The average person in the United States eats about 20 teaspoons of sugar a day. Teens and men consume the most sugar-sweetened beverages. These include soft drinks, sports beverages, and fruit drinks, according to the American Heart Association.

A single 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, the most popular soft drink in the world, contains 39 grams of sugar, or 7.8 teaspoons. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they avoid sodas.

Implementing strategies like this in the U.S., where sugar-sweetened beverages are the primary source of added sugars in the diet, would take a consorted effort from government and industry leaders.

Lead study author Kawther Hashem, a nutritionist and researcher with the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary, said these changes should be made through mandates, and working with the food industry.

“Our experience is that some of the food and drink industry will oppose this, but they don’t seem to have the same power as in the U.S. Nevertheless, New York adopted the same plan for salt reduction and will probably follow the U.K.’s sugar reduction,” she told Healthline.

In a related commentary, Dr. Tim Lobstein, director of Policy, World Obesity Federation London, said policies can be made by restricting the advertisement of unhealthy food to children, in addition to taxes on soda.

“In combination, such measures could have a substantially greater effect on sugar consumption than in isolation, bringing even greater relief to the over-stretched budgets of the UK’s health services,” Lobstein wrote.

However, officials from the British Soft Drinks Association disputed the study’s link between sugar intake and obesity rates.

“The hypothetical claims made in this study run contrary to the evidence. In fact, sugar consumption in the U.K. has been declining for many years, particularly from soft drinks, as government statistics testify, while levels of obesity increased,” Gavin Partington, BSDA Director General, told Healthline.

Partington added the soft drink industry has taken steps itself to help consumers reduce sugar consumption. Those steps include reformulation, smaller portion sizes, and increased promotion of low and no calorie options.

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Experts Weigh in on Sugar Restrictions

As obesity and diabetes are epidemics in the U.S., health officials are mixed on how to directly combat the issue.

Franceen Friefeld, a former nutritionist in the food industry, questions how restricting sugar in drinks would help.

“If combined with other improvements in the diet such as the increase in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and the reduction of added fats and sugars from a variety of sources, this initiative would no doubt would have a positive effect on reducing the incidents of type 2 diabetes and obesity,” she told Healthline. “But reducing sugar from soda alone can’t possibly achieve what has proved to be an insurmountable goal since the onset of the health and obesity crisis.”

Others believe abstinence is the best policy.

Dr. Bruce Roseman, the author of "The Addictocarb Diet," says simply reducing the amount of sugar in beverages like soda and fruit drinks is “a waste of time” and people should avoid them completely.

“You cannot treat heroin addiction by simply cutting the strength of heroin, you must cease using it,”  he told Healthline.

Regulations withstanding, what are the best ways people can reduce their sugar consumption?

“By cutting down the amount of sugar-sweetened drinks they are consuming or gradually diluting it with water or sparkling water,” Hashem said.

Marie Spano, a sports dietician and nutritionist, said added sugars should be distinguished from naturally occurring sugars such as those in 100 percent fruit juice, fruit, and dried fruit without added sugar.

“These drinks do not cause the sugar spike that you will get from a soda so they metabolized very differently,” she told Healthline.

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