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.

“While we have some research that suggests the negative toll diet beverages can have on our health, this high-quality observational study points to a strong correlation found between artificially sweetened beverages and an increased risk of stroke and dementia,” Jefferson T. Miley, Seton Brain & Spine Institute said. Seton 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 be thoughtful about what you are eating and drinking, considering both potential benefits and possible health risks,” Miley said. The study was not designed to prove cause and effect, but the findings are still worth taking note, he 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

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.

“When you consume artificial sweeteners, the brain thinks it is getting sugar calories. When those sugar calories are not received, it confuses the metabolic system,” Miley said.  The brain thinks your body is getting sugar calories, but when the sugar is not delivered, the miscommunication can make you crave more calories. In some cases, this can lead to eating more.

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 blood vessels may play a role.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, vascular dementia is common after stroke and is the second leading type of dementia.  Restricted blood flow to the brain can cause damage including memory loss, confusion, and trouble speaking or understanding speech.

“While we know stroke can lead to vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, the leading type of dementia, is unique in how it develops,” said Miley. More research is needed to determine the exact mechanism of correlation.

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.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily added sugars to no more than nine teaspoons for men or six teaspoons for women. 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.

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.