For women trying to keep a healthy weight after menopause, the American Heart Association has a simple message: Choose water over diet drinks.
A study published recently in Stroke, a journal of the AHA, reveals women age 50 and above who consume more than one artificially sweetened drink a day are significantly more likely to have a stroke, a heart attack and an early death.
Even women with no history of heart disease or diabetes are considerably more vulnerable to increased health risks if they drink multiple diet beverages a day.
The results of the study, which examined data on 81,714 women ages 50-79 tracked for an average of 11.9 years beginning in the mid-to-late ’90s, may come as a blow to those trying to fend off weight gain by eschewing regular sodas in favor of low-calorie alternatives.
“Many well-meaning people, especially those who are overweight or obese, drink low-calorie sweetened drinks to cut calories in their diet,’’ said Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani, the study’s lead author. “Our research and other observational studies have shown that artificially sweetened beverages may not be harmless and high consumption is associated with a higher risk of stroke and heart disease.”
Compared to other postmenopausal women who imbibed less than one diet drink a week, regular consumers had a 23 percent enhanced likelihood of any kind of stroke, 31 percent higher chance of a stroke caused by a blocked artery – by far the most common – and a 29 percent increased possibility of a heart attack. Their chances of dying from any cause increased by 16 percent.
Just as worrisome was the revelation that two-plus-a-day diet-beverage drinkers without previous heart disease or diabetes were 2.44 times more likely to have a stroke caused by a blood clot. That figure dipped a bit to 2.03 times among obese women without those maladies but skyrocketed to 3.93 times among African American women.
The authors warn that their study only shows an association, not a cause-and-effect correlation, behind high consumption of artificially sweetened beverages – whether sodas, fruit juices or other – and the increased health risks.
They also pointed out the results are not applicable to men or younger women. In July, an advisory by the AHA warned against frequent and long-term consumption of diet drinks, especially for children, and instead recommended water, whether plain, carbonated or flavored without sweeteners.
One major question left unanswered by the latest study is exactly what ingredient in diet drinks has the adverse health effects.
“We don’t know specifically what types of artificially sweetened beverages they were consuming,’’ Mossavar-Rahmani said of the women in the study, “so we don’t know which artificial sweeteners may be harmful and which may be harmless.”
The American Beverage Association, which represents the soft-drink industry, did not take issue with the study’s methodology but pointed out that regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Agency consider artificial sweeteners safe.
“In January, the World Health Organization released a major study that reaffirmed the safety and efficacy of these sweeteners as a way to reduce sugar in foods and beverages,’’ the ABA said in a statement. “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.”
There has been mounting evidence about the perils of frequent consumption of diet beverages, which have been linked to higher risk of dementia, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
That much is acknowledged in an editorial on the same issue of Stroke as the Mossavar-Rahmani study. The editorial also calls for more research on the various types of artificial sweeteners to discern their individual health effects.
Lacking that, the editorial says water remains the healthiest alternative to sugary drinks, and it concludes:
“If (diet beverage) consumption is used to wean off (sugary drinks), it should be viewed as a time-limited intermediate in the transition to water and other healthier beverages.”
Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY
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