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Diet Soda And Your Risk For Heart Attack Or Stroke

It tastes sweet. It’s pleasurably fizzy. And free of calories. What’s more, the FDA says NutraSweet (aspartame) is safe. So what’s not to like about diet soft drinks?

A bunch. The ongoing debate about the healthiness of diet soft drinks reminds me of the old adage, “If something sounds to be true, it probably is.”

Artificially-sweetened “diet” drinks get touted as healthy alternatives to sugary drinks because they contain no calories or carbohydrates. On paper it seems plausible to think they are inert, no more dangerous than water. The Coca-Cola Company sublimely strengthens this assertion by putting a big red heart on Diet Coke cans.

But diet-cola news (Los Angeles Times) presented at the International Stroke Conference 2011 suggests otherwise. This widely-publicized observational study of 2,500 older patients (average age=69) from New York showed that drinking diet soda on a daily basis increased the risk of having a heart attack or stroke by 61 percent. The abstract — not a peer-reviewed study — stated that this association persisted after controlling for other pertinent variables.

Sure, this is only a look back at 559 patients who had a vascular event. The study asserts only an association, not that diet colas cause heart attacks and strokes. That’s a big difference.

That said, however, I don’t view these results as trivial either. This trial builds on the results of prior studies of diet drinks which strongly suggest that despite their lack of calories, diet drinks don’t prevent obesity.

My take on diet drinks is that they’re junk food in a can. It isn’t just the science, it’s the common sense: Nothing that is artificially colored, artificially sweetened, and packaged in aluminum is good for you. Even the supermarkets agree — they display soda right next to chips and cookies.

That’s why I find the views of a prestigious stroke doctor so disturbing. The vice chair of the stroke meeting, Dr. Steven Goldberg of Massachusetts General Hospital, advised patients to focus on a healthy diet and exercise before they consider cutting back on soda consumption. He adds, “People shouldn’t rush to stop consuming diet soft drinks.” I hope he was misquoted. How dumb would the above sentence have sounded if the words “Fritos” or “Twinkies” were substituted for “diet soft drinks?”

To me, minimizing the consumption of junk food is at the crux of a healthy diet. Our obesity epidemic isn’t mickey mouse. Thus when a medical leader is given the bully pulpit, it seems to me they should aggressively advocate for the total package of better health.


*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*

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