Diet Beverage Warning: Think Before You Drink

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Study shows diet drinks linked to tripled risks of stroke, dementia

Reaching for artificially sweetened options can help cut calories, but according to a new study, you may want to rethink that diet drink.

The study showed that adults who reported drinking one or more artificially sweetened beverages daily had almost a three times higher risk of developing either stroke or dementia, compared to those who drank less than one a week. Results were published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke.

“There are many studies that show the negative impact diet soda can have on your overall health,” said Jared Collett, PA-C at Ascension Providence Neurosurgical Associates. While the study was not designed to prove cause and effect, the findings are still worth taking note, Collett said. Ascension Providence is part of Ascension, the largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system.

“It’s important to continue looking at available data, and not assume artificially sweetened beverages are a healthier option,” Collette said.

All study participants were part of the ongoing Framingham Heart Study Offspring. Researchers followed 2,888 people over age 45 for the stroke part of the study and 1,484 adults over the age of 60 for the dementia part of the study. Participants answered questions about their diets over the course of seven years. Researchers tracked participants’ stroke and dementia risk for a decade afterward.

The (artificial) sweet truth

Kathy Olansen, MS, RDN, LD, clinical dietitian at Ascension Providence, says there are both positive and negative claims made about artificial sweeteners, none of which are 100 percent conclusive when talking about most people. Artificial sweeteners can affect people differently, especially when pre-existing illnesses or diseases are in play.

Drinking artificially-sweetened beverages instead of sugar-sweetened beverages can lead to some of the same risk factors linked to the non-diet options, including weight gain. Authors of an editorial published in Stroke say some research shows people who drink artificially sweetened beverages may consume more calories throughout the day.

“The artificial sweeteners hijack the normal reward pathway of eating something sweet. The body doesn’t take in the sugar calories the brain thinks it is getting, and ultimately no signal of satisfaction is sent from the gut to the brain,” Collett said. In response, the brain overcompensates, making you eat more sugar later to make up for the perceived shortage.

This is your brain on fake sweeteners

And when it comes to brain health? The editorial suggests that though the exact mechanism of how artificially sweetened beverages affect the brain isn’t clear, the effect these drinks have on your artery health may play a role.

Collette explains that many of the risk factors for heart disease and stroke are similar to dementia risk factors. As with heart disease, if a brain vessel becomes diseased and doesn’t get the proper blood flow, the brain can be damaged.

The trouble with regular sugar

Are foods and drinks with real sugar any better than artificial sweeteners? Not necessarily.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sugar-sweetened beverages are a prime source of added sugars in the American diet. A 20 oz. bottle can pack in over 200 calories; if you have just one every day, that’s over 1,400 calories each week, with no real nutritional value.

Less than 10 percent of daily calorie intake should come from added sugars, Olansen said. Added sugars come in different forms. Some are familiar, such as brown, raw and granulated sugar, honey, molasses or pancake syrup.

Other not-so-familiar added sugars include: high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose and lactose. The reality is, Olansen said, many people get way beyond the recommended calories from added sugar in food before ever popping that soda pop top.

Too much sugar in your diet can put you at greater risk for weight gain or obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, and even cavities.

If not this, and not that, then what?

The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association agree moderate use of artificial sweeteners instead of sugars can help fight weight gain, and help those with diabetes manage sugar and carbohydrate intake. But we need more research to discern the exact benefits and health risks of both diet and non-diet drinks.

If you need to lay off the soda, reach for fruit-infused water, unsweetened tea, low-fat or skim milk instead. Your doctor or a registered dietician can personalize a diet plan to help you meet your specific health and wellness goals.