New Research Shows Hidden Risks of Diet Soda
At 140 calories a can—almost all of which come from sugar—we know soda might not be the best option to reach for when we’re thirsty, but diet soda can’t be bad, right? After all, they’ve stripped away the sugar and calories, and it’s got the word “diet” in it. Unfortunately, besides there being no research that a diet soda is better for your health or your waistline, new research shows the drink might also be tied to an increased risk of dementia and stroke.
Over a decade, researchers studied nearly 3,000 people over the age of 45 to see if sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages affected their risk of stroke. They also studied nearly 1500 people over the age of 60 to see if those drinks affected their risk of dementia. Of those studied, 97 cases of stroke and 81 cases of dementia were recorded.
Although sugar-sweetened drink consumption is not associated with stroke or dementia, the study, published in the journal Stroke, found that artificially-sweetened beverage consumption is associated with a higher risk.
The study adjusted for age, sex, education, physical activity, diabetes, smoking and many other characteristics that might affect the risks, but reasons for the link remain unknown.
“Diet sodas are not necessarily healthier,” says Robert Duhaney, M.D., internist and primary care physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano. “I remind my patients that having things in moderation is always the best option. It is OK to have the occasional diet soda or even regular soda, but long term, heavy intake more than an average of one 12oz. can of diet soda per day can add up. This study further adds evidence to show a potential link between diet sodas to dementia and strokes.”
Time to Ditch the Diet
So you might be thinking about ditching diet soda once and for all, but other than lowering your risk for dementia and stroke, what else can ditching the drink do for your body and your health?
More Sensitive Taste Buds
Diet sodas and beverages are sweetened with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose and saccharin. Although low-calorie, these sweeteners pack a punch when it comes to sweetness. Aspartame (Equal) is 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) can be 500 times sweeter, and sucralose (Splenda) can be 600 times sweeter. All that sweetness can overwhelm your taste buds and even alter sweet receptors in your brain, prolonging sugar cravings instead of nixing them. When you stop drinking all that artificial sweetener, your taste buds have a chance to pick up on subtle flavors and you may find food has more flavor.
It’s Easier to Lose Weight
You might have turned to diet or ‘lite’ drinks in an attempt to help lose weight, but research actually suggests the opposite happens. Researchers from the University of Texas found that over the course of about a decade, diet soda drinkers had a 70 percent greater increase in waist circumference compared to non-drinkers. Up your intake to two or more sodas a day, and the increase jumps to 500 percent.
“Studies on this are mixed, but in some reports, even what I see in my office, is that diet sodas can sometimes drive up carb cravings thereby having the opposite effect of lower risk for diabetes and losing weight,” Duhaney says.
Stronger Bones and Teeth
According to researchers at the University of Michigan, drinking three or more diet sodas a day can increase your risk of tooth decay, thanks to the high level of acidity in the drink. One 2014 study of postmenopausal women also found that each additional serving of soda per day was associated with a significant 14 percent increased risk of hip fracture. Another study found that older women who regularly drank soda had lower bone mineral density in their hips.
A Lower Risk for Type 2 Diabetes
It seems contradictory that a sugar-free drink may still cause Type 2 diabetes, but research supports that very statement. A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota suggests that drinking one diet soda a day is associated with a 36% increased risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Metabolic syndrome describes a cluster of conditions (including high blood pressure, elevated glucose levels, raised cholesterol and large waist circumference) that put people at high risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
“Individuals who drink soda on a regular basis, in general, tend to be at risk for diabetes and obesity over time. This risk increases with the amount consumed,” says Duhaney. “In terms of the soda being diet as to off-set the calories and sugar, it is not as clear if there is a direct correlation. Animals studies show artificially sweetened drinks can lead to glucose intolerance over time or ‘pre-diabetes.’”
Kidneys Get a Chance to Do Their Job
One study looked at 11 years of data and found that women who drank two or more servings of diet soda a day doubled their chances of declining kidney function. So now that your kidneys no longer have to make sense of filtering the long list of ingredients in diet soda, they can get back to clearing toxins, stabilizing blood pressure and absorbing minerals.
It’s important to note that much dietary research just identifies correlation—when two events occur together—and can’t tell definitely whether one thing causes another. For instance, people who find their blood sugar moving upward may start drinking diet cola to compensate, rather than the diet drinks causing their metabolic problems.
However, with so many question marks abounding, why take the risk? Drinks such as milk contain valuable calcium and protein. Juices, though high in sugar, have occasional merit as sources of vitamin C and other vitamins. And water is the best pure, healthful, no-calorie beverage option around.
“[This study] confirms the need for me to continue educating my patients on the drawbacks of diet sodas,” Duhaney says.