Diet drinks linked to heart issues, study finds

Artificially sweetened beverages, a new study has found, may be just as bad for your heart as the sugar-laden kind.

“Our study suggests artificially sweetened beverages may not be a healthy substitute for sugar drinks, and these data provide additional arguments to fuel the current debate on taxes, labeling and regulation of sugary drinks and artificially sweetened beverages,” said lead author Eloi Chazelas, a doctoral student and member of the nutritional epidemiology research team at the Sorbonne Paris Nord University, in a statement.

“We already know that sugar-sweetened beverages are bad news when it comes to cardiovascular and other health outcomes,” said cardiologist Dr. Andrew Freeman, co-chair of the American College of Cardiology nutrition and lifestyle work group, who was not involved in the study.

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“A lot of people said, ‘Well, maybe diet sodas and artificially sweetened beverages are better than sugar-sweetened beverages.’ But there’s been recent evidence in the last couple years that would suggest that there are possible harms, if you will, from artificially sweetened beverages, particularly in women,” Freeman said.

Danielle Smotkin, a spokesperson for the American Beverage Association, told CNN via email that “low- and no-calorie sweeteners have been deemed safe by regulatory bodies around the world and there is a substantial body of research, including a study by the World Health Organization, that shows these sweeteners are a useful tool for helping people reduce sugar consumption and manage weight.

“We support the WHO’s call for people to reduce sugar in their diets and we are doing our part by creating innovative beverages with less sugar or zero sugar, clear calorie labeling, responsible marketing practices and smaller package sizes,” Smotkin said.

Association, not causation

The new research, published Monday in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, analyzed data from over 100,000 adult French volunteers participating in the French NutriNet-Santé. That’s an ongoing nutritional study launched in 2009 that asks participants to fill out three validated web-based 24-hour dietary records every six months. The study is expected to conclude in 2029.
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The volunteers were divided into three groups: nonusers, low consumers and high consumers of diet or sugary beverages. Sugary beverages included soft drinks, fruit drinks and syrups that were at least 5% sugar as well as 100% fruit juice. Diet drinks contained only non-nutritive sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose and natural sweeteners such as stevia.

During follow-up from 2011 to 2019, sugary and diet-drinking habits were separately compared to any first cases of “stroke, transient ischemic attack, myocardial infarction, acute coronary syndrome and angioplasty,” the study said.

The authors said they eliminated early cases of heart disease during the first three years, adjusted for a “range of confounders” that might skew the data, and found a small but statistically significant result.

Compared to people who didn’t drink artificially sweetened beverages, high consumers were 20% more likely to have cardiovascular disease at any particular time. There was a similar result for higher consumers of sugary drinks when compared to nonusers, the researchers found.

However, the authors said, the study could only show an association between the two, not a direct cause.

“To establish a causal link, replication in other large-scale prospective cohorts and mechanistic investigations are needed,” the authors said.

Artificially sweetened beverages may not be a heart-healthy alternative to sugary drinks, a new study found.

The Calorie Control Council, an international association representing the low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage industry, provided this statement:

“Epidemiological studies, even those built on large sample sizes, are subject to potential pitfalls including reverse causality [subjects choose low and no calorie sweeteners (LNCS) as a tool to manage their weight after becoming overweight/obese] and residual confounding [inability to control for factors that influence health outcomes], as the researchers noted.”

A growing body of research

Not having more definitive studies in place is a major limitation, researchers have said, as it’s impossible to determine whether the association is due to a specific artificial sweetener, a type of beverage or another hidden health issue.

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“We know that people who consume diet sodas sometimes are already overweight or obese, so you have to wonder what other confounders and lifestyle may already exist,” Freeman said.

“We also know that you know when you take in something sweet your body triggers insulin release and a number of other things that can sometimes even lead to weight gain.”

Still, this is not the first time diet beverages have been associated with heart issues.

A 2019 study found drinking two or more of any kind of artificially sweetened drinks a day was linked to an increased risk of clot-based strokes, heart attacks and early death in women over 50.

Risks were highest for women with no…

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