an aluminum can of diet soda, non-sugar sweeteners, daily diet soda

Remember when we were told that butter was bad and margarine was marvelous? Ooops! Turned out that the trans fats in margarine actually increased the risk for heart disease.

Diet drinks were supposed to help people lose weight and presumably improve overall health. Now, a study analyzing data from 60,000 participants from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) suggests that diet soft drinks may also increase the risk for heart attacks, strokes and deaths from cardiovascular “events.”

We Americans love to eat our cake and have it too. That is why we are so susceptible to the seductive messages from food manufacturers and health professionals. First, they scare us by saying that something is bad. For decades, saturated fat was the enemy, guaranteed to clog coronary arteries. So, we embraced cholesterol-free margarine. The promise was that we could put it on bread, baked potatoes and pancakes and not worry about our heart health. Turns out that was a big fat lie!

Ditto for diet drinks. We were told that we could have all the sweetness we crave without the sugar and not gain weight. There are serious questions about that premise, but the real issue is whether such beverages are hazardous to our health rather than helpful. Diet soft drinks could be another trans fat story in the making.

Here is the straight and skinny on the new research. The results of this observational study were reported at the American College of Cardiology meetings in Washington, D.C. The title of the presentation was: “Diet drink consumption and the risk of cardiovascular events: A report from the Women’s Health Initiative.”

Women who regularly consumed at least two diet drinks daily were about 30% more likely to have a heart attack than those women who rarely or never consumed diet pop. The greater the diet drink intake, the more likely the investigators were to detect nasty outcomes such as heart attacks, strokes and death from cardiovascular disease. This was a long-term study, with follow-up averaging nine years.

It was not a gold-standard study, however. It did not involve randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled research. The investigators relied on answers to a questionnaire. That is why it is called observational. That means the authors cannot state unequivocally that diet pop “causes” heart attacks and deaths. All they can say is that there is an “association” between diet drinks and negative cardiac outcomes.

But wait! This is not the first time diet soft drinks have been linked to heart attacks and strokes. A study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine (September, 2012) also noted an increased risk of heart attack and strokes. In this research 2,564 New Yorkers were tracked for a decade. Daily consumption of diet soda was linked to a 44% increased risk of heart attack or stroke. They were also more likely to die from cardiovascular causes.

The counter-argument is often that people who drink diet soft drinks might be unhealthier than people who shun diet drinks. Maybe, but as these observational data accumulate, Americans may wish to reconsider their love affair with artificial sweeteners.

If you would like to hear an in-depth discussion of aspartame and cancer risks, we encourage you to take a few minutes to listen to our free interview with Dr. Morando Soffritti, Scientific Director of the Ramazzini Institute in Bologna, Italy. Here is a link to The People’s Pharmacy Radio Show #880 titled “How Safe Are Sweeteners?”

Share your own thoughts below. Do you love diet drinks? Do you feel they have made a difference in your ability to control your weight and improve your health? Or do you have concerns about the benefits and risks of such beverages? We’d love to read your comments.

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  1. Mickey Margot G.

    Hello: Ref Diet Drinks – mainly Diet Coke
    Through the years I drank diet cokes. I had a lot of stomach aches and went to a gastro md he could not find a thing wrong. However, he said I had “IBS”. Given pills for a nervous stomach.
    During a doctors visit I told him how I sometimes got diarrhea after I finished eating. I mentioned that it had something to do with what I ate….of course he did not pay attention to me….(I am old, he thinks).
    I decided to check what I was eating. Long story short…finally figured out what was the cause of all my problems!!! Diet Cokes!!! I stopped drinking them about May 2013 and it took about a week to notice that my diarrhea was gone!!! Something in the coke itself is what caused my “IBS”.
    It took a couple of months to make me realize that I was free to travel and did not have to check out the restrooms before I ate!

  2. KDelphi

    thanks alot

  3. Len

    At 66, I am a healthy male that takes 40mg Atorvastatin for high cholesterol which just started two years ago. In addition, I am ten percent overweight.
    I have shunned water, especially the water with fluoride and replaced it with Pepsi for the last forty-five years. I started with regular Pepsi and then went to the sugarless variety to get away from the 150 calories per can. Six or eight Pepsi One’s per day serves me well today!
    Pepsi One now has Splenda and so far so good! Can it be worse for a long life than fluoride in our water can be ? I think not !!!

  4. Jane

    I find that diet sodas encourage the eating of snack foods with them, so weight loss is not a given. I greatly prefer a regular soda, but that adds a ton of nasty sugar to my diet that does not help weight loss. My thought is that many people in the observational study had additional weight and/or medical issues to begin with and drank diet soda to help lose weight. They could have been at a higher risk for cardiac issues to begin with.

  5. gary

    Not sure this study covers all the correct bases. Perhaps people who drink diet sodas figure they can eat other unhealthy foods since they are “cutting” calories with diet soda (e.g. I will eat this bag of potato chips with my “diet” Coke.)

  6. Cindy M. B.

    I’m quite sure the bad guy is Aspartame, the sweetener used in diet pops. Of course there’s the fact that the whole drink’s nothing but chemicals!!. Dr. Mercola, one of the big “web doctors,” has been railing against Aspartame for years, citing all the health dangers… I love sweet stuff but use ONLY STEVIA. I’ll drink a diet pop maybe once every 2 months when I’m feeling like doing something kinda dangerous. The rest of the time it’s unsweetened Jasmine tea, or lightly stevia-sweetened hibiscus tea with a dash of ACV and sour-cherry concentrate. YUM! Much much better than diet pop!

  7. Bonnie Pope

    As a health professional and diabetic health counselor, I’ve been following this controversy on diet/regular sodas for a while now. The research that’s been done so far has been very compelling, to the point that I changed a lot of my teaching, urging my patients to just get rid of sweetened carbonated beverages, period! Water with lemon or lime juice, or a squeeze of fresh orange; and natural juices with a measure of dilution to wean them off the soda habit.

  8. mm

    I stopped drinking soda pop and diet pop 30 years ago and encouraged all to do the same. I prefer water, green tea, sugar free juices. I do not eat red meat, favor fish and chicken. I do not care for fried foods. Limiting portions is a good way to lose weight with a healthy balance of fruits, veggies, transfat free foods, beans, brown rice are just a few examples of a healthy diet. Avocados/guacamole, tomatoes/salsa, queso/cheese, low fat milk, eggs, whole wheat bread, rye, pump are always available in my kitchen!!! I am a senior and have never had a prob with cholesterol, blood pressure or weight.

  9. Loreta B. Peebles

    As an English teacher, I’m thrilled to see that you’ve written–correctly–the expression “We Americans love to EAT our cake and HAVE it, too.” Most write ‘have our cake and eat it, too’ which is what we always do with cake. We have it and then we eat it. But it’s impossible to eat it AND have it. Kudos for this and the many, many ways you’ve made my life healthier and better. Thanks!

  10. GEAlfano

    I found that, for me, drinking diet coke was addictive. I would start out with one a day and end up drinking 4 or 5. In addition, I gained weight when I drank diet cokes.

  11. Sara

    For many decades I’ve been waiting to hear that toothpaste will kill us! Seriously, I did read recently something about an ingredient in some kinds of toothpaste that will make our canker sores worse! Now, I use whitening crest and occasionally have had canker sores all my life, but they are not worse.
    Now, as to diet drinks, I’ve been drinking them since they first were on the market. It’s been so long that I cannot even recall the name, but I believe it was a coca cola product. when pepsi began making diet pepsi, I switched to it. I’m 74 and I’m still waiting for my heart attack! I have little faith in many research programs, especially regarding our food… who pays for them and what is their true goal?
    I do try to balance my intake of diet pepsi with water, tea, and coffee. I have no serious health problems and go to gym three to four times a week.

  12. B. Howard

    Thank you for publishing this article! I am a personal trainer and have been telling my clients and friends for a while to stop putting diet sodas into their bodies. All the chemicals and artificial ingredients cannot be good for you. Stick with REAL food and REAL liquids! Water, tea, juices you create yourself – all good, real stuff!

  13. JS

    What about Hansen’s Diet Soda which contains sucralose and natural flavors…no aspartame? I drink it now and then.

  14. VW

    I have never like sodas, but it seems to me that a small amount of sugar is probably a better bet than chemicals. When I need something to keep me awake on the road I choose regular coke–also helps with a headache in a pinch. Mostly I drink water but if I want something special I have carbonated water (no sweetener) with a bit of juice or lemonade in it. That is very satisfying.

  15. VR

    This seems to lump ALL diet sodas together. I’d like to know if there is any difference in risk of cardiovascular events depending on the type of sweetener used (is there really no difference between soda with stevia and soda with aspartame?). Do these studies show that it is definitely the sweetener that causes the events? Are there any other ingredients in diet soda that may be responsible? And are those ingredients in ALL diet sodas or just some brands or some flavors? I’m left with not enough information.

  16. MP

    I have curtailed my consumption of diet sodas to about one a week. I started drinking diet sodas in my late 20s (I’m 70 now)to lose weight — it did help. Until recently, I would drink only one a day but am concerned about the risks.

  17. SMP

    Curious as to what is in the diet soda that might contribute to heart attacks & stroke. Do people who drink diet sodas drink more of them because they are calorie free? If so, could caffeine be a contributing factor. Would caffeine free diet sodas reduce the risk or is there another variable involved which increases the risk?

  18. Joan

    This makes me happy! I have given up diet soda and replaced it with water and the juice of a whole lemon. It’s been 2 weeks now and I don’t miss it at all.

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