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.

New Research

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.

Need help getting your health back on track? Turn to a Texas Health Physicians Group primary care physician for guidance. To find a physician in your neighborhood, visit THPG.org.

18 Comments

  • Lanni Fish says:

    Here’s another “thumbs-down” to diet sodas. I have never been subject to headaches. Then, some years ago, my husband and I decided to lose some weight, and we switched to diet sodas. I drank about two a day. After a few weeks, I began having migraine headache attacks. They increased until I was in misery about two days out of seven. I missed a lot of work, and nothing seemed to help them. Finally, unrelated to the headaches, I decided I couldn’t stand the metallic aftertaste of the diet drinks and I hadn’t lost any weight either, so I abandoned them. Within two weeks, my migraines disappeared, and that’s when I made the connection.

    I’m not saying that artificial sweeteners cause migraines, generally speaking. However, I think it’s pretty clear that for me at least, they did. I don’t touch artificial sweeteners in any form, ever, and I haven’t had a headache since, not migraine or just garden variety headache. I just don’t have them.

  • Norma Raymond says:

    Are beverages made with Stevie any safer? What about stevia for type 2 diabetics?

  • Amy Lalumia says:

    Unfortunately I really love the taste of dr. peppers just for that reason I’m not a diet person whatsoever. I love my food too much. I’m going to try to cut down on the diet sodas that’s for sure

  • Barb says:

    Are the effects reversible if one stops drinking diet soda? I’m assuming that any artificially sweetened food has the same health issues. Is that a correct assumption?

  • Gwenne Galati says:

    I learned of the dangers of Aspartame 30 years ago and have abstained from it since then. I had 20 different adverse symptoms which went away after eliminating Aspartame. At the ripe old age of 83 I have survived heart disease and melanoma.

  • Lynne says:

    Interesting… The entire article discusses consumption of diet sodas, frequently mentioning artificial sweeteners. However, does the same information apply to drinking beverages other than soda that are made with artificial sweeteners (e.g., Crystal Light; Lipton Green Tea Citrus or Berry; etc.)?

  • Michelle says:

    I personally do not drink diet sodas. I would rather have the real sugar in regular sodas. I am certain there are risks of drinking the real thing as well. I really want to stop drinking sodas all together, but it is hard when there are no other choices at work, besides water, which I do drink from time to time.

  • Tim says:

    The remaining problem with all this reasearch is that it doesn’t take into account actual food intake. They say that diet drinkers end up with bigger waistlines and adjust for a bunch of different factors but they don’t account for the one most important factor – calorie consumption. Why is there still no study where people eat virtually the same food with one group drinking regular soda and the other drinking diet. The claim that it makes you want more carbs is misleading at best – no one is forcing people to eat more carbs, it’s entirely up to the individual to monitor their consumption. We aren’t slaves to our desires, we can control our urges and that’s the single most important factor in these studies but none of them address it.

  • Louise Cowan says:

    What about sparkling water?

    • Sarah McClellan-Brandt says:

      Just check the ingredients if it’s flavored. If there’s no sweetener, I don’t think it falls under the diet drink category! –Sarah McClellan-Brandt, Texas Health

  • KLZ says:

    Great research article. I’m not in the age range of this article,.but I’m approaching it. I have cut my drinks to fresh distilled water from the use at home of the Water Wise distiller. Water tastes so good !!!! It’s what is best. I loved how the article stated that when drink water our bodies organs can go back to doing their intended functions. Diabetes, heat disease, high blood pressure, obesity, renal disease (kidneys) among other diseases and conditions are needlessly brought into our lives by poor choices of diet and lifestyle choices of smoking and inactivity. All of these can be avoided. As a nurse, we would call all of these conditions body abuse. But hey, we didn’t mind because it paid the bills. But i did care about my patients. As a nurse watching people’s lifestyle choices making then ill, i became even more determined that in my life i would avoid these conditions as much as possible. However, I recently gained weight after i was a victim of a car accident. Limited activity contributed and I gained 30 pounds. Since January, through exercise, diet control, and age management care, I’ve lost 20 of those pounds – and i just completed the Fort Worth’ s Mayor’s Triathlon Sprint on July 9. All this extra info is to encourage others to get to putting into your body nutrition, exercise, water, sunshine, temperance, air and rest, and trust in God to help you have a NEW START to a healthier life !

  • Molly says:

    What about drinking tea sweetened with artificial sweeteners?

  • Nancy Ritts says:

    I so agree with the content in this article. I have been telling persons this information for 40 years – it is so important that you are publishing it. Send it to physicians – they don’t like telling their patients this and many haven’t believed it.

    NSR, MSN, RN

  • Trish says:

    I’ve trying to tell people for years about the dangers of aspertamr etc
    Higher occur acne of neuro disorders, peti mal seizures, brain tumors etc and addiction to diet drinks with weight gain. Thank goodness it is being reported

  • Darlynn Dority says:

    Time to give them up.😬

  • Susan Reynolds says:

    Is Stevia considered a good alternative to artificial sweeteners and sugar?
    Thank you

  • Sally says:

    I would also like to know if Stevia is safer than the mentioned artificial sweeteners.
    Great article…thanks.

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