Sugary drinks are consumed by roughly half of the American population on any given day in the United States. And now, a new study published in the journal Circulation reveals each daily dose of liquid sugar may increase a particularly dangerous type of fat in the body known as visceral fat. If this is the case, it may also mean an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Visceral fat is a particular concern among experts because it pads the spaces between our vital organs, such as the liver, pancreas, and intestines. Found mostly in the abdomen, it stores large energy reserves, and produces hormones and other substances that affect our health. Too much of it can put a person at risk for diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease and lead to unstable hormone levels. In women, these abnormal hormone levels can increase breast cancer risk.

"There is evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages with cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes," said the study's lead author Dr. Caroline S. Fox, a former investigator with the Framingham Heart Study of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, in a press release. "Our message to consumers is to follow the current dietary guidelines and to be mindful of how much sugar-sweetened beverages they drink. To policy makers, this study adds another piece of evidence to the growing body of research suggesting sugar-sweetened beverages may be harmful to our health."

For the study, researchers recruited 1,003 participants whose average age was 45 (nearly half were women). After filling out food questionnaires, the participants underwent CT scans at the start and the end of the day in order to measure any body fat changes that may have occurred. Based on the diets they reported, participants were placed into four different categories: non-drinkers; occasional drinkers who have sugar-sweetened beverages once a month or less than once a week; frequent drinkers who have a sugar-sweetened beverage once a week or less than once a day; and those who drank at least one sugar-sweetened beverage a day. Researchers followed up with the participants 6 years later to record any changes that took place overtime.

Over the six-year period, researchers found visceral fat volume increased by 658 cubic centimeters for non-drinkers, 649 cubic centimeters for occasional drinkers, 707 cubic centimeters for frequent drinkers, and 852 cubic centimeters for those who drank one beverage each day. This increase in fat occurred regardless of participants' levels of physical activity, body mass index, gender, or age.

A recent study published in the journal Heart found over the span of a 12-year period, 3,604 people developed heart failure while those who drank at least two sugary beverages increased their risk by 25 percent. Still, researchers weren't sure what caused the increase. This newly found link to visceral fat may provide clues to how diet affects metabolic disease risk over the long term.

Researchers haven’t been able to identify exactly why sugary beverages cause the body to produce more visceral fat. But they suspect it may have something to do with sugar’s relation to insulin resistance — a main contributor to diabetes. These hormonal imbalances worsen when sugary beverages are consumed on a daily basis, and increase chances of developing type 2 diabetes. If people keep drinking an average of 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar each day, then rates of types 2 diabetes and heart disease will certainly continue to climb.

Source: Fox CS, Ma J, McKeown NM, Hwang SJ, Hoffmann U, and Jacques PF. Sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is associated with change of visceral adipose tissue over 6 years of follow-up. Circulation. 2016.