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What You Need to Know Before Reaching for a Diet Soda

Of course we know that diet soda isn’t necessarily the healthiest beverage in the fridge — but is it really that bad for us? According to controversial new research, yes.

The study was recently published in Stroke, the American Heart Association’s journal, showing there may be an association between artificially sweetened drinks (like you’ll find in diet soda) and a higher risks of stroke and dementia. While diet soda has been used by scads of people wishing to avoid excess sugar consumption, artificial sweeteners have been eyed with suspicion for years due to the potential for negative health effects.

While this study did find an association, what does that really mean for us, especially those of us who are diet soda drinkers?

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The study was limited to specific populations

Researchers pored over data from the Framingham Heart Study, which is a project of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Boston University. They looked at 2,888 adults over age 45 and 1,484 adults older than age 60. The over-45 group was studied for stroke risk and the over-60 group was studied for dementia risk.

There was a connection between diet soda and strokes

When the researchers studied adults who consumed diet soft drinks and compared them to their peers who never did, they found that those who drank at least one a day were three times as likely to suffer from an ischemic stroke (the most common type, where a blood clot is lodged in the brain). They also found that they were around three times as likely to be diagnosed with dementia. Those drinking one to six artificially sweetened drinks per week were 2.6 times as likely to suffer a stroke, but were not more likely to experience dementia.

But the FDA says artificial sweeteners are safe

All sweeteners that have been approved by the FDA have been officially deemed safe for consumption by the general population.

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Artificial sweeteners have been linked to weight loss and weight gain

While many turn to diet sodas to reduce overall calories, studies on the topic have been conflicting. Some found that they do lower caloric intake, which promotes weight loss or maintenance, but others show that those who drink on the regular actually gain weight.

Diet soda has not been linked to cancer

While early studies showed certain sweeteners caused cancer in laboratory animals, subsequent studies have not shown clear evidence of doing so in humans.

There may be more to the story

The Calorie Control Council notes that while this study has shown an association between low- or zero-cal beverages and certain health risks, there are limitations to the study itself that need to be addressed. They note that people who may already be at a risk of stroke and dementia, such as those with diabetes or obesity, are often more likely to turn to diet sodas. Also, they say that variables, such as socio-economic status, BMI, drug and alcohol use, family history and depression were not completely considered.

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Bottom line

While this study has shown an association, it’s not conclusive, and widespread recommendations to avoid the substances should not (and likely will not) be made. That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t anything valuable to take away from this study. Take it with a grain of salt, but also keep in mind that further studies may add more credence and it may be worth altering your habits.

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