The study tracked almost 82,000 postmenopausal women in the Women’s Health Initiative trial who were between the ages of 50 and 79 when they first enrolled. Three years into the study, the women were asked to indicate how often they drank diet soda and diet fruit drinks during a three-month period. They were followed for nearly 12 years on average overall.
The researchers found that those who drank two or more diet drinks each day saw their overall risk of stroke climb by 23 percent compared to to the women who drank diet drinks less than once per week.
For many of these women, the main culprit was blocked arteries, with drinking lots of diet sodas linked to a 31 percent rise in ischemic stroke risk – the type of stroke that is triggered by a blood clot. These findings persisted even after accounting for the nutritional value of each woman’s overall diet and stroke risk factors like smoking history, age and blood pressure status.
According to the researchers, diet drinks can be linked to cardiovascular risks in several ways. For example, women who drank two diet drinks per day or more saw their risk of developing heart disease rise by 29 percent, while their overall risk of premature death from any cause rose 16 percent.
There were certain groups whose outcomes were even worse. For example, obese women with no history of diabetes or heart disease noted a twofold increase in their risk of clot-driven stroke; the rise was fourfold for black women in this category.
It’s important to note, however, that the researchers did not keep track of which brands of diet drinks the women in the study consumed, so it’s hard to say with certainty which artificial sweeteners are behind the problem. However, what we already know about commonly used artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose should be enough to give anyone pause.
While the study only looked at post-menopausal women, these results should be enough to cause men and women of all ages to think twice before drinking diet sodas. In fact, soda is always a bad choice, regardless of how it’s sweetened. Part of the risk could be related to women missing out on the nutrition they might have gotten from other drinks, like pure fruit or vegetable juice or milk, but the chemicals in these drinks are also dangerous.
Sadly, many women are taking on these additional risks for no good reason. Research has also linked drinking diet soda to an expanding waistline. In a study that followed people over the age of 65 for nine years on average, it was determined that those who never drank diet soda gained an average of 0.8 inches in waist circumference, while those who drank diet soda occasionally gained 1.83 inches and those who drank it daily put on more than three inches in waist circumference, even after accounting for other factors like physical activity, smoking and diabetes.
The lead author of that study, Dr. Sharon P.G. Fowler of the University of Texas at San Antonio, summed it up nicely when she said: “Calorie-free does not equal consequence-free.”
These studies remind us that tricking your body is always going to backfire. Any time you are consuming something unnatural like artificial sweeteners, you’re taking on tremendous risk that could be easily avoided by sticking to the many great options nature has provided us.
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