Diet soft drinks may increase cardiovascular risk

A paper presented at the American College of Cardiology 2014 session says that diet soft drinks may play a role in increasing the risk of heart attacks and death in women. Dr. A. Vyas and his team did research on postmenopausal women who drank artificially sweetened soft drinks.

Previous studies have linked drinking beverages sweetened with artificial sweeteners to weight gain. They also increase the risk of developing metabolic syndrome. People with metabolic syndrome have a higher incidence of developing type II diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Sugar free via Shutterstock

Sugar free via Shutterstock

Research is ongoing to try to determine the mechanism that causes artificial sweeteners to cause weight gain, obesity, diabetes and other diseases. In animal studies, rats fed artificial sweeteners ate more than control animals. Artificial sweeteners may slow metabolism and cause fewer calories to be burned than normal. Artificial sweeteners may cause the body to lay down more belly fat. There are other hypothesis as well to attempt to explain this that are currently under investigation.

The study that Vyas, et al., did looked at data from about 60,000 women who were around 60 years old. These women were part of an observational study called the Women’s Health Initiative. They completed questionnaires that reported on their consumption of diet beverages. None of the women enrolled in the study had any previous history of cardiovascular disease.

The women were categorized into groups based on how many diet drinks they drank: 0-3 diet drinks per month, 1-4 diet beverages weekly, 5-7 diet drinks per week or 2 or more per day. Most of the women were in the 0-3 diet drinks per month range. Investigators looked to see how many or these women developed any of the following over time: heart attack, stroke, needed a revascularization surgery done, developed other cardiovascular disease, peripheral arterial disease, or death from a cardiovascular disease.

The women who drank two or more diet drinks per day had an increased incidence of cardiovascular disease compared with the women who drank less. But those women who did drink 2 or more diet drinks per day also tended to be overweight, smoke and have some other risk factors, as well.

Though drinking diet drinks could have contributed to their obesity and increased calorie intake. Comparing women who drank two or more diet sodas per day with those who rarely drank them, women who drank more had about a 30% increase in risk of having a cardiovascular event. This doesn’t conclusively say that drinking diet sodas will cause a heart attack or stroke. But, added to previous research showing that artificially sweetened beverages contribute to developing other diseases and increase health risks, it is something that bears watching and needs further research.

In a previous article, I wrote about the effects of added sugar in foods and beverages causing deleterious health effects. So, what should you drink? A few suggestions.

Water is always a good go-to beverage. It’s cheap and readily available. You can always add something to it like lemon juice or lemon or lime slices for a little flavor.

Alternatives include things like a sparkling water cocktail. 10 ounces of sparkling water with about 2 ounces of unsweetened juice (pineapple, apple, orange – all are naturally sweet enough to give this some flavor and sugar). Depending on the juice used, this is about a 60 calorie beverage. Unsweetened iced tea or iced coffee (or hot tea or coffee) are other alternatives.

Also, there are a number of beverages on the market that are made from juice combinations (lemon+apple, kiwi+papaya, and many other varieties) that don’t use any artificial sweeteners or added sugars. Check the label on the beverage to see how many calories are present.

With the possible risks from excessive added sugar and artificial sweeteners, this might be a good time to try some alternative beverages that could be more healthful in the long term. If you’d like to get an idea of how many calories are present in common beverages, you can take a look at this link.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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