Frequent diet soda drinkers might save calories, but they face the same higher risk of heart disease and diabetes as people who drink sugary soft drinks every day, a new study says. Scientists studying about 3,500 middle-aged men and women as part of a long-term heart research project found an association between daily soft drink consumption and an increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome, according to a report published Monday in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.
People with metabolic syndrome have a combination of risk factors for diabetes and heart disease, such as high blood pressure and elevated triglycerides.
The analysts considered other factors as well, such as whether the people had high-calorie diets or sedentary lifestyles. But the report falls short of proving exactly who or what should take the blame for the potential health problems, said Dr. Ramachandran Vasan, senior author of the Framingham Heart Study.
“One of the important questions is, ‘Is it the soda drinker or the soda?’ ” said Vasan, who teaches at Boston University School of Medicine.
The study adds to an array of research associating the consumption of both diet and regular sodas with childhood obesity and increased risk of high blood pressure in adults. The authors did not make any specific recommendations because more research is needed to clarify or confirm the findings, he said.
“In this group of middle-aged adults, consumption of just one or more soft drinks per day seemed to increase the risk of developing metabolic syndrome by about 50 percent,” whether the drink was artificially sweetened or not, Vasan said.
When compared to those who drank fewer than one soft drink daily, participants who drank one or more a day had about a 30 percent greater risk of developing new-onset diabetes, being overweight and having low levels of good cholesterol.
Yet critics like Dr. Dean Ornish contend that frequent soda consumption has been unfairly singled out in this study and others.
“I imagine if they looked at chocolate chip cookies and did the same analysis, they would find the same thing,” said Ornish, the founder and director of the nonprofit, Sausalito-based Preventive Medicine Research Institute.
It doesn’t make sense that two people who drink beverages with very different calorie counts would have a similar likelihood of gaining weight, he said.
However, soda drinking is among unhealthy behaviors that contribute to metabolic problems, Ornish said. The study confuses contributory factors with actual causes of disease, he said.
It’s the same argument made by representatives of the American Beverage Association.
“You can over-consume any food with calories, and you’re going to have the potential for health consequences, so we always preach the need for moderation in your diet, and physical activity,” association spokesman Kevin Keane said.
The trade group, which represents nonalcoholic beverage manufacturers and distributors, lambasted the study and its implications about heart disease.
“It’s a complex problem, and to blame one particular food or one particular product for heart disease or other problems is just oversimplification and not accurate,” Keane said.
The researchers offered several theories to explain their results, such as that the consumption of sweet drinks might condition a desire for sweeter foods, or that drinking more during a meal can lead to more solid food consumption during the next meal.
They also said fructose corn syrup in regular soft drinks might contribute to weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes. But the study’s finding that diet and regular soda drinkers face similar risks is a curveball for the corn syrup argument because diet drinks are flavored with artificial sweeteners, Vasan said, adding that the burden will fall to nutritional scientists to research the topic more.
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