Is Diet Soda Unhealthy?

It looks as though water may be your best bet for quenching your thirst. A new study published last month in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke, found that people who drink at least one artificially sweetened soda a day appear to have almost three times the risk for stroke or dementia compared to someone who drinks less than one soda a week.

The study authors caution that their results show only an association with these illnesses, and does not constitute proof, but they say the study definitely warrants more research in this area. You might think the fact that the study did not find the same link with stroke and dementia in those who drank sugar-sweetened drinks would be good news, but the authors say that doesn’t mean those are healthy options, either. Especially given the fact that numerous other studies have linked sugar-sweetened beverages to Type-2 diabetes and heart disease.

The researchers analyzed data on nearly 2,900 people over 45 for the stroke study and almost 1,500 people over age 60 for the dementia study, according to CBS news, which said the study was limited in a number of ways, and noted that Dr. Ralph Sacco, a former president of the American Heart association, calls the current research “inconclusive.”

However, the current study, as well as other recent research showing associations between diet soft drinks and negative effects on blood vessels throughout the body, suggest that consumers may want to use caution before turning to these drinks as an alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages, CBS reported.

“Both sugar and artificially sweetened soft drinks may be hard on the brain,” Sacco said.
Other experts agree. “We know that limiting added sugars is an important strategy to support good nutrition and healthy body weights, and until we know more, people should use artificially sweetened drinks cautiously,” said Rachel K. Johnson, Ph.D., past chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee and professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont. “They may have a role for people with diabetes and in weight loss, but we encourage people to drink water, low-fat milk or other beverages without added sweeteners.”

In fact, aspartame, the artificial sweetener primarily used in diet sodas, has been under scrutiny for years for the possible negative effects it has on the brain. Many studies since its introduction as Nutra-Sweet in 1975 have given the sweetener a clean bill of health, but this latest study once again raises the possibility that aspartame could be harmful. Or the culprit could be phenylalanine, a component of aspartame. The Mayo Clinic reports that phenylalanine isn’t a health concern for most people, but in those with certain health conditions it has been known to cause mental retardation, brain damage, and seizures, and may worsen feelings of anxiety and jitteriness.

Dr. Christiane Northrup, in her 2001 book, “The Wisdom of Menopause,” calls aspartame “an excitotoxin, which means that it causes nerve cells to over-fire. In susceptible people, this can lead to the death of brain cells.”

So there you have it: a new study which suggests diet soda causes harm to the brain, contradictory studies that claim aspartame is harmless, and others who attribute to it serious nerve and brain impacts. And don’t forget the May 2016 study that found mothers who frequently drank diet sodas were twice as likely to have babies who were overweight or obese by age one. And the 2015 study that found that people who drank diet soda daily gained almost triple the abdominal fat over nine years compared with those who drank it infrequently or never.

Your primary care doctors and specialists at The Medical Group of South Florida tend to shy away from alarmist studies and we definitely shun Internet rumors, but we believe there is enough uncertainty about the effects of soda to ask our patients to consider monitoring their intake of both sweetened and unsweetened soda. After all, humans drank nothing but water and milk for millennia and survived quite well.