Your favorite diet drinks may be harming the heart, says new study

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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If your heart goes pitter-patter for diet drinks, it might not be due to your love for it. 

Artificially sweetened drinks can be just as bad for your heart as the sugar-laden type, a new study has found.

“Our study suggests artificially sweetened beverages may not be a healthy substitute for sugar drinks and these data provide additional arguments to fuel the current debate on taxes, labeling and regulation of sugary drinks and artificially sweetened beverages,” a member of the nutritional epidemiology research team at the Sorbonne Paris Nord University said in a statement.

“We already know that sugar-sweetened beverages are bad news when it comes to cardiovascular and other health outcomes,” said cardiologist Dr. Andrew Freeman, co-chair of the American College of Cardiology nutrition and lifestyle work group, who was not involved in the study.

For example, a 2019 study found that women who had more than two servings a day, described as a regular glass, bottle or can, had a 63 percent increased risk of premature death compared to women who drank sugar sodas, sports drinks and juice less than once a month. Men who consumed more than two servings had a risk increase of 29 percent.

“A lot of people said, ‘Well, maybe diet sodas and artificially sweetened beverages are better than sugar-sweetened beverages.’ But there’s been recent evidence in the last couple years that would suggest that there are possible harms, if you will, from artificially sweetened beverages, particularly in women,” Mr. Freeman said.

The Study

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Latest data analyses of over 100,000 adult French volunteers involved in the French NutriNet-Santé have been published in the new report. NutriNet-Santé is an ongoing nutritional study launched in 2009 that asks participants every six months to fill out three validated 24-hour web-based dietary records. The study is expected to conclude in 2029.

The volunteers were divided into three groups: non-users, low-consumers and high-consumers of sugary or diet drinks. Soft drinks, fruit drinks and syrups containing at least 5 percent sugar as well as 100 percent fruit juice were considered sugar drinks. Only non-nutrient sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose and natural sweeteners such as stevia were used in in beverages that were considered as diet drinks.

During follow-up from 2011 to 2019, sugary and diet-drinking habits were separately compared to any first cases of “stroke, transient ischemic attack, myocardial infarction, acute coronary syndrome and angioplasty,” the study said.

The authors said that over the first three years, they removed early cases of heart disease, accounted for a “number of confounders” that could distort the results, and found a small but statistically significant outcome.

Not so sweet findings

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High consumers were 20 percent more likely to have cardiovascular disease at any given time compared to individuals who did not drink artificially sweetened drinks. In contrast to non-users, the researchers found that there was a similar result for higher users of sugar drinks.

The authors said, however, that the analysis could only demonstrate an association between the two, not a direct cause.

“To establish a causal link, replication in other large-scale prospective cohorts and mechanistic investigations are needed,” the authors said.

Need for more studies

A major limitation is not having more conclusive studies in place, researchers have said, since it is difficult to decide if the connection is due to a particular artificial sweetener, a type of beverage or some hidden health issue.

“We know that people who consume diet sodas sometimes are already overweight or obese, so you have to wonder what other confounders and lifestyle may already exist,” Mr. Freeman said.

“We also know that you know when you take in something sweet your body triggers insulin release and a number of other things that can sometimes even lead to weight gain.”

Findings from earlier studies

Still, this is not the first time that diet drinks have been related to heart problems.

A 2019 study found that in women over 50, drinking two or more of any form of artificially sweetened beverages a day was associated with an increased risk of clot-based strokes, heart attacks and early death. The study showed that the risk was greatest for women with no history of heart disease or diabetes and for those who were obese.

According to another 2019 study, consuming four or more artificially sweetened drinks increased the risk of premature cardiovascular disease death in women. But the same effect was not observed in males.

A link between diet drinks and stroke, dementia, type 2 diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome, which can lead to heart disease and diabetes, has also been shown in previous studies.

Until more conclusive researches come up, experts suggest that we choose our beverages wisely. “I will tell you that the perfect beverage for human consumption remains water, probably always will be,” Mr. Freeman said. “And maybe with a very close second of unsweetened tea and unsweetened coffee.

“And the rest probably should not be consumed regularly, if at all.”

How to cut down if you are addicted to it?

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Even if you know the object of your affections which is sugar and diet drinks might not be good for your wellbeing, it can be difficult to give up the love affair. Here are some experts’ tips on how to cut back.

Don’t try to stop all at once. This technique is challenging and can set you up for failure, experts warn. “Cut back by one serving per day until you’re down to one drink per day,” they said “Then aim for one every other day until you can phase out soft drinks entirely.

Drink water, even if it’s carbonated. Water is the perfect hydration for the human body, experts say. If it’s not your favorite beverage, try to add some sparkle.

Try infusing fruit into water. You can purchase a pitcher, fill it with water, then add slices of oranges, lemons, strawberries, watermelon or whatever fruit you like so the water will become infused with the fruit flavor and provide sweetness to your palate.

If you find that you are also addicted to the crackle and pop of soda fizz, try carbonated water. Alternating “with seltzer/sparkling water can help you cut back. Eventually you can replace soft drinks with seltzer or sparkling water if you are craving carbonation.

Try a short no-sugar challenge. Because our taste buds turn over every two weeks, we can teach ourselves to crave less sweet things in a short period of time, according to experts

Try a two-week no-sugar challenge. Once past those first intense sugar cravings, your taste buds will adjust to find “natural foods with sugar more satisfying,” they said.