Can diet sodas increase your risk of heart attack, stroke? | Gustafson

A just released study on diet sodas suggests that the no-cal or low-cal versions may be kinder to your waistline but bad for your heart and even your head.

These are the conclusions of a 9-year long survey involving more than 2,500 participants from the New York City area who consumed diet sodas every day during that time period. The participants showed a 61 percent higher risk of vascular events, like heart attack and stroke, compared to people who never drank diet sodas.

The study was presented as a poster at the American Stroke Association's International Conference in Los Angeles. The academic requirements for posters are usually lower than those for peer-reviewed studies published in science journals and are considered only as preliminary reports. Nevertheless, reactions were particularly strong in this case, not only from the beverage industry but also from the medical community.

The lead author of the study, Hannah Gardener, an epidemiologist at the University of Miami, was quick to concede that more studies were necessary before any definite conclusions about the potential health risks from diet sodas could be drawn.

Besides the consumption of diet drinks, the research considered the participants' age, sex, race, eating habits, exercise routines and other lifestyle components, like drinking alcohol and smoking. Regular physical checkups included testing of blood pressure and cholesterol levels to monitor some of the most common contributors to heart disease and stroke.

Even when all these factors were taken into account, the risk of vascular events remained on average higher for those who consumed diet sodas regularly. By contrast, the research found no increased risk among participants who had only regular sodas. This difference led the researchers to identify diet drinks as a potentially singular cause.

Does this mean there is something specific to diet sodas that affects our blood vessels? Gardener has been careful not to make that conclusion just yet, but it is clearly the direction of her thinking.

Link to health woes

Previous studies have suggested that drinking large amounts of diet sodas on a regular basis may be linked to metabolic syndrome, a cluster of health conditions, which can also contribute to heart problems and stroke. Based on these findings, there have been warnings in the past about excessive consumption of diet drinks for vascular disease patients.

Still, there is no real proof that these links actually exist. There is call for caution from all sides. The American Beverage Association has released an official statement saying that there is no evidence that diet sodas uniquely cause increased risks of vascular events or stroke.

Dr. Walter Willett from the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health has warned that the findings should not be interpreted as a cause to change our behavior with regards to diet sodas.

Dr. Richard Besser, editor for health issues at ABC News, calls the study flawed and unnecessarily fear-inducing.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, advises to look at the larger picture instead of honing in on one particular possible cause. He says that people who consume large amounts of sodas often develop a "sweet tooth," which is reflected in their food choices as well.

Many processed foods can have detrimental health effects, some of which can result in vascular events. It is hard to point to one ingredient in a person's diet and say this is it.

However, while it may be ultimately impossible to identify a single culprit for the increase of specific health risks, we can clearly say that there are certain lifestyle choices that are health-promoting and others that are not.

Crisis in our country

We know full well that our preferences for unhealthy foods and drinks have led to a national health crisis. Obesity-related diseases have reached epidemic proportions in this country, a disastrous development that is directly linked to our unreasonable behavior as consumers.

On a larger scale (no pun intended), it doesn't really matter so much which items on our shopping list cause this or that particular damage. The bottom line is that we eat way too many fatty, salty and sugary foods, drink too many carbonated sodas, exercise too little, don't get enough sleep and don't know how to manage our stress. The widespread excessive consumption of sodas, diet or regular, is just part of that scenario, which is an all-around unhealthy lifestyle.

Understanding our health needs and making better choices in every aspect of our well-being should be our primary focus.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, available in bookstores, at and at You can also follow Timi on Twitter.

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