According to research recently published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke, artificially sweetened drinks like diet soda may increase your risk of stroke.
The results came from a collaboration of Boston-based researchers who analyzed data from a population based study whose participants have filled out surveys and had thorough health check-ups every four years since 1971. “We have little data on the health effects of diet drinks, and this is problematic because [these drinks] are popular,” says Matthew Pase, the study’s lead author and a senior research fellow in the department of neurology at Boston University.
With that in mind, Pase and his colleagues set out to examine how drinking diet soda might influence your risk of having a stroke.
Examining the Risks of Diet Soda Consumption
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that one in five adults living in the United States drink artificially sweetened beverages on a given day. Yet we know very little about how those sweeteners affect human health.
Pase and his fellow researchers drew their conclusions from data taken from 2,888 adults over the age of 45 and 1,484 adults over the age of 60, all of whom were enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study. The researchers analyzed how many artificially sweetened soft drinks each person in the two age brackets drank at different points in time between 1991 and 2001. They then examined how many of those individuals had a stroke over the following decade.
The researchers found that individuals who drank at least one artificially sweetened beverage a day were nearly three times more likely to have an ischemic stroke—the result of blocked blood vessels—than those who never drank soft drinks.
How Does Diet Soda Impact Your Health?
It’s important to note that the research did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship, rather, it highlights an association between drinking diet soda and an increased risk of stroke. “More research is needed to study the health effects of diet drinks so that consumers can make informed choices concerning their health,” said Pase.
Though he agrees that more research is needed, Dr. Ralph Sacco, professor and chair of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that the results offer insight into the possible mechanism responsible for the association between diet soda intake and an increased risk of stroke.
“We believe the pathways of which artificially sweetened beverages would affect the brain are probably through vascular mechanisms,” said Sacco, meaning that the sweeteners affect your blood vessels. “Many strokes are caused by hardening of the arteries,” he elaborated, and when the researchers controlled for other conditions related to vascular changes, like hypertension…diabetes…and obesity, the effects of the sweeteners diminished.
Tips to Help You Cut Back Your Soda Consumption
While we don’t yet know quite how diet soda affects your risk of having a stroke, we do know that it has zero health benefits. If you have a soda habit you’d like to kick, try swapping in one of these healthy alternatives:
- Carbonated water flavored with fruit slices or lemon juice
- Unsweetened iced tea
- Freshly-made fruit juice, or better still, a green juice
If you still can’t resist soda, limit yourself to an 8-ounce glass, and try to indulge only on occasion. Remember that soda is designed to be addictive, so the more you drink, the more you’ll want. In the long run, you’ll probably feel best if you avoid it altogether.