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Ditch the diet soda
For years I've been telling people to stop drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and sodas in favor of tea, coffee, or water, or at least to switch to the diet version of the beverage. Last year a study funded by the American Beverage Association suggested that drinking diet sodas would actually help you lose more weight than if you drank water.

Another reason to avoid added sugar
Because I'm an advocate of avoiding processed foods and sugary drinks, I don't spend a lot of time talking specifically about added sugars. Yet the average American drinks enough soda - between 45 and 50 gallons of it per person - to consume about 39 pounds of sugar a year.

Soda and Stroke
It's clear that drinking soda is linked to a variety of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. While research on diet soda contributing to weight gain is mixed, those 120 or so calories in every can of sweetened soda is not doing your effort to control calories any favors, either. Now we can add "increased risk of stroke" to the joys of carbonated beverages.


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Diet drinks linked to stroke, heart disease

a tall glass of iced cola with a straw in it

We know that too much added sugars are bad for you - and in the Western diet these added sugars too often come from sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas and juice drinks. These have fairly convincingly been linked to increased risk of stroke and heart disease, so naturally people turn to sugar-free versions of the same drinks, thinking they're healthier. Unfortunately, a recent study in the American Heart Association journal, Stroke, suggests that artificially-sweetened (diet) beverages carry the same risks (doi:10.1161/STROKEAHA.118.023100).

An international team of researchers used data gathered from the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study, a large-scale, long-term study that includes over 90,000 postmenopausal women who were at least 50 years of age when the study was enrolling participants between 1993 and 1998.

Upon enrollment the participants responded to demographic and other questionnaires, received a physical exam that included blood tests, and brought in all of their medications to be added to their record. Three years after enrollment over 80,000 of the women returned to the clinic to repeat all of these procedures, and at that time the participants were also asked about their consumption of artificially-sweetened beverages, with the question specifically asking about "diet drinks such as Diet Coke or diet fruit drinks" and using the standard 12 ounce can as the serving unit.

For an average of almost 12 years, the authors tracked the participants' experiences of stroke, coronary heart disease, and death from all causes, using surveys of the participants as well as access to the National Death Index.

In their analysis, the authors took into account the participants' score on the Healthy Eating Index 2005, a measure of dietary quality, as well as Body Mass Index, history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, taking cholesterol-lowering medications, and health behaviors like drinking alcohol, exercising, and smoking.

Compared to those who "never or less than 1 time per week" consumed an artificially-sweetened beverage, those who consumed them at least 2 times per day were 23% more likely to have any type of stroke, 29% more likely to experience coronary heart disease (including a fatal or nonfatal heart attack), and 16% more likely to die of any cause. Almost 80% of these more-frequent consumers of diet drinks "never or rarely" drank regular soda (almost 9% did drank at least one regular soda per day).

It is important to note, however, that those who drank more artificially-sweetened beverages were more likely to be overweight or obese, exercised less, consumed more calories, and had a poorer quality diet overall than those who drank fewer diet drinks. They were also more likely to have diabetes and to have had a previous stroke or heart attack.

What this means for you

It's important to bear in mind that this is an observational study: it does not show that diet drinks cause stroke, heart attack or death. Not drinking diet sodas may be a marker for a healthier, more active lifestyle in general. I still urge you to keep sodas (whether sugared or artificially-sweetened) as occasional treats: your healthiest beverage options are still water, coffee, or tea.

First posted: February 27, 2018