Diet Drinks Linked to Higher Stroke, Heart Risk in Women Over 50, Study Finds

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February 18, 2019


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A growing number of studies has sparked concerns within the medical community that the daily consumption of diet sodas, or other beverages containing artificial sweeteners, may prove more harmful than beneficial. The very latest study represents yet another red flag to diet soda lovers.

Researchers now say drinking two or more of any type of artificially sweetened drinks a day is linked to an increased risk of clot-based strokes, heart attacks and early death in women over 50, according to a new study by the American Heart Association (AHA) and American Stroke Association. These risks were highest among women with no history of heart disease or diabetes, and women who were obese or African-American.

Like most other studies on diet sodas, there is no an actual cause-and-effect association. But the results mark another reason for further studies on the possible health hazards of consuming artificial sweeteners regularly, according to cardiologists and dietitians.

“Many well-meaning people, especially those who are overweight or obese, drink low-calorie sweetened drinks to cut calories in their diet,” said Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani, Ph.D., lead author of the study and associate professor of clinical epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. “Our research and other observational studies have shown that artificially sweetened beverages may not be harmless and high consumption is associated with a higher risk of stroke and heart disease.”

But she adds that many questions remain unanswered. For example: Are artificial sweeteners “doing something to our gut health and metabolism?” adds Ms. Mossavar-Rahmani.

Dietitians caution diet beverage drinkers that one packet of artificial sweetener is about 600 times than regular sugar. That means diet sodas could increase subsequent sweet cravings and have the reverse effect for individuals seeking to lose weight and reduce calorie intake.

“Our taste buds are very, very sensitive,” explains Natalie Castro, chief wellness dietitian for corporate wellness at Baptist Health South Florida.”The idea is to reduce the amount of artificial sweeteners we are using so we can re-train our taste buds not to need so much sweet foods or drinks.”

Because of the widespread use of artificial sweeteners in drinks and packaged foods, many people consume them without realizing it. Most diet soft drinks or foods sold as having “no added sugars” often contain artificial sweeteners.

“You are better off cutting back on sugary drinks by choosing infused water, for example, with slices of lemon or oranges in the water bottle,” says Cathy Clark-Reyes, a dietitian with Baptist Health Primary Care. “There are healthy alternatives that don’t involve fake sugar like that found in diet sodas.”

The AHA states that this new study is one of the first focus on the association between drinking artificially sweetened beverages and the risk of specific types of stroke “in a large, racially diverse group of post-menopausal women.” The study does not prove” cause and effect” because it was an observational study based on self-reported information about diet drink consumption, the AHA says.

Compared with women who consumed diet drinks less than once a week or not at all, women who consumed two or more artificially sweetened beverages per day were:

  • 23 percent more likely to have a stroke;
  • 31 percent more likely to have a clot-caused (ischemic) stroke;
  • 29 percent more likely to develop heart disease (fatal or non-fatal heart attack); and
  • 16 percent more likely to die from any cause.

“Unfortunately, current research simply does not provide enough evidence to distinguish between the effects of different low-calorie sweeteners on heart and brain health,” says Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., R.D., the chair of the writing group for the American Heart Association’s science advisory, Low-Calorie Sweetened Beverages and Cardiometabolic Health. “This study adds to the evidence that limiting use of diet beverages is the most prudent thing to do for your health.”

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