Niha Zubair, Arivale Clinical Research Scientist, PhD
It’s probably not news that beverages containing added sugar aren’t good for your waistline. But, a recently released study found something even more eye-popping: long-term consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages – such as soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks – is associated with a higher risk of death.
So, just stick with that sugar-free Coke Zero, right? Interestingly, the study also found that long-term consumption of artificially-sweetened beverages is likewise associated with a higher risk of death – but mostly for women.
SSBs vs. ASBs
Sugar-sweetened beverages, or SSBs, are the largest source of added sugar in the American diet. Population-based studies show that SSBs are associated with weight gain and higher risk of cardiometabolic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease (here, here, and here for more).
This has created a market for artificially-sweetened beverages, or ASBs, with little to no calories. However, ASBs have also been linked to negative health outcomes (see hereand here). Despite this knowledge, it has not been well understood whether SSBs and ASBs actually shorten our lifespan.
Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health embarked to answer this question. They followed a population of over 30,000 men and 80,000 women from the 1980s to 2014. These individuals were healthy at the beginning of the study and followed until they died. During the study, their diet – including consumption of SSBs (excluding fruit juice) and ASBs (defined here as artificially sweetened low-calorie or diet beverages) – was assessed every four years using a self-administered food questionnaire.
Over the duration of the study, the researchers documented more than 36,000 deaths, primarily from cardiovascular disease and cancer. After accounting for other diet and lifestyle factors, researchers found people who drank two or more SSBs per day had a 20 percent higher risk of total mortality (death from all causes) compared to those who drank less than one SSB per month. In terms of specific causes of death, the consumption of two or more SSBs per day increased the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 31 percent and from cancer by 16 percent.
Meanwhile, the consumption of two or more ASBs per day was associated with a 4 percent greater risk of total mortality and a 13 percent greater risk of cardiovascular mortality (though no increase in risk of cancer death) mostly among women.
Again, the fact that the Pepsis, Gatorades, and Mountain Dews of the world are problematic for our health isn’t surprising. And, these results support current public health recommendations and policies to limit the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages you drink.
However, the harmful findings on artificially-sweetened beverages warrant more research. As noted in a CNN article, people with conditions like obesity or type 2 diabetes may switch to diet or sugar-free sodas after their diagnosis. In such cases, it could be their condition – not their choice of drink – that’s responsible for their greater risk of death. To their credit, researchers behind the recent study tried to avoid this possibility by only using data about what participants drank prior to any diagnosis.
Still, while ASBs can help decrease sugar and calorie intake when replacing SSBs, long-term and frequent consumption of ASBs may pose a health risk. When it comes to our choice of beverage, we should seek out alternate options, such as herbal tea, unsweetened coffee, and, best of all, plain old water.
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[Arivale Hot Topics address health stories currently in the news. The Arivale Clinical Team’s commentary on these news articles is not a review of the scientific evidence, nor an endorsement of a specific study, and is not meant as official medical opinion.]