Is Diet Soda Bad For You?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Diet Soda and Health

Do Diet Sodas Increase Your Risk Of Stroke?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

diet soda badIs diet soda bad for you?  With over two third of Americans overweight or obese, it is clear that we are in a midst of an obesity epidemic. Multiple studies have shown that over consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (soft drinks, energy drinks, and “fruit” juices that aren’t made from real fruit) are major drivers of the obesity epidemic. Because of these trends, many experts recommend substituting artificially sweetened beverages for sugar-sweetened beverages in the American diet.

Is that advice sound? Do diet sodas help prevent weight gain? Are they safe? The answers to those questions are not as clear as you might expect.

Do Diet Sodas Prevent Weight Gain?

diet soda make you fatThe answer to that question would seem to be a no-brainer. Substituting beverages with no calories for beverages with calories should lead to less weight gain. However, as I summarized in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor” article Do Diet Sodas Make You Fat, the answer is not clear at all. Some studies suggest that diet sodas help people lose weight. Other studies suggest diet sodas cause just as much weight gain as sugar-sweetened sodas.

With so much confusion in the literature, what should we believe? More importantly, what do the experts say? This January an international consortium of experts reviewed all of the pertinent literature and published a position paper on whether artificially sweetened beverages were of value in responding to the global obesity crisis (Borges et al, PLOS Medicine, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002195).

These authors concluded:

  • “In summary, the available evidence…does not consistently demonstrate that artificially-sweetened beverages are effective for weight loss or preventing metabolic abnormalities [pre-diabetes and diabetes]. Evidence on the impact of artificially-sweetened beverages on child health is even more limited and inconclusive than in adults.”
  • “The absence of evidence to support the role of artificially sweetened beverages in preventing weight gain and the lack of studies on their long-term effects on health strengthen the position that artificially-sweetened beverages should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet.”

Is Diet Soda Bad For You?

diet soda strokeAs if the lack of proven efficacy weren’t bad enough, other studies suggest that diet sodas may also be bad for your health. In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor,” I have discussed other studies showing that diet sodas are just as likely as regular sodas to increase risk of diabetes Artificial Sweeteners and Diabetes and heart disease Soft Drinks and Heart Disease.

Even worse, a study published earlier this month (Pase et al, Stroke, DOI: 10.1161/STROKE.AHA.116.016027 ) concluded that diet sodas may significantly increase the risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

This study looked at 2888 participants of the Framingham Heart Study. The participants evaluated for risk of stroke had a mean age of 62 on enrollment. Those evaluated for risk of dementia had a mean age of 69 on enrollment. All subjects were followed for 10 years. Three food frequency questionnaires were administered during that 10-year period to evaluate consumption of diet and sugar-sweetened sodas. The results of the study were:

  • People consuming at least one diet soda per day over a 10-year period were 3X more likely to have a stroke or develop dementia (primarily Alzheimer’s disease) than people consuming no diet sodas.
  • No increased risk of stroke or dementia was seen for people consuming sugar-sweetened beverages. However, that does not mean that sugar-sweetened beverages are good for you. Previous studies have shown they increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.
  • When the data were corrected for hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and obesity (waist to hip ratio), diet sodas still increased the risk of having a stroke by 2.6-fold.
  • This is not the only study to show a link between diet sodas and stroke. Two other studies have come to the same conclusion, and in both of those studies the increased risk was also seen only with diet soda consumption, not with sugar-sweetened soda consumption.

The author of the study concluded by saying: “As the consumption of artificially sweetened soft drinks is increasing in our community, along with the prevalence of stroke and dementia, future research is needed to replicate our findings and to investigate the mechanisms underlying the reported association.”

I agree. Current evidence does not definitively prove that diet sodas cause stroke and Alzheimer’s, but these are life-changing adverse health outcomes. Further research to test this association is desperately needed to know whether or not diet soda is bad for you.

Are Diet Sodas Safe and Effective?

diet soda dangerousAs you might expect these studies have caused quite a bit of controversy. Some experts have embraced these studies and have concluded that health professionals should stop recommending diet sodas as a safe and effective alternative to sugar-sweetened sodas.
Others have been unwilling to change their recommendation of diet sodas for people who are obese and/or diabetic. Their rationale is 3-fold:

  • These studies merely show that diet soda consumption is associated with weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s. Association does not prove causation, so their viewpoint is that there is no conclusive proof that diet sodas cause weight gain and health risks.
  • The obesity epidemic is a major health crisis, and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages plays an important role in weight gain.
  • They are convinced that most people are so addicted to the sweet taste of sugar that they would be unwilling to switch to calorie free options like water or herbal teas.

In short, they are desperately clinging to the hope that substituting diet sodas for sugar-sweetened sodas will put a dent in the obesity crises because they don’t believe there are any other viable options.

What Do These Studies Mean For You?

I side with those experts who have looked at the data from the opposite perspective and concluded there is no convincing evidence that diet sodas are either safe or effective.

If the conversation were just centered around weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease, this could be considered an academic discussion. One could argue that diet sodas might have some benefit, and, at the worst, would have the same health risks as the regular sodas they replaced.

However, the possibility that diet sodas may increase the risk of stroke and dementia is a game-changer in my mind. That’s because consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas does not appear to increase the risk of either stroke or dementia. If true, that means that substitution of diet sodas for sugar-sweetened sodas is not a neutral substitution. It could cause serious harm.

With no good evidence that diet sodas help people control weight and the possibility that they may have serious health risks, it is difficult to see how anyone in good conscience can continue to recommend diet sodas in place of regular sodas.

My recommendation is to substitute water and other unsweetened beverages for the sugar sweetened beverages you are currently consuming. If you crave the fizz of sodas, drink carbonated water. If you need more taste, try herbal teas or infuse water with slices of lemon, lime, or your favorite fruit. If you buy commercial brands of flavored water, check the labels carefully. They may contain sugars or artificial sweeteners. Those you want to avoid.

So, is diet soda bad for you?  Well, it’s not good for you.

The Bottom Line

  • This January an international consortium of experts reviewed all of the pertinent literature and concluded: “The available evidence…does not consistently demonstrate that artificially-sweetened beverages are effective for weight loss or preventing metabolic abnormalities. The absence of evidence to support the role of artificially sweetened beverages in preventing weight gain and the lack of studies on other long-term effects on health strengthen the position that artificially-sweetened beverages should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet.”
  • This April a study was published reporting that people consuming at least one diet soda per day over a 10-year period were 3X more likely to have a stroke or develop dementia (primarily Alzheimer’s disease) than people consuming no diet sodas. Two other studies on the effect of diet sodas on the risk of stroke have come to similar conclusions.
  • We cannot yet say definitively that diet sodas cause stroke and dementia. Further research is clearly needed to test these associations. However, at this point it is safe to say there is no convincing evidence that diet sodas are either safe or effective.
  • With no good evidence that diet sodas help people control weight and the possibility that they may have serious health risks, it is difficult to see how anyone in good conscience can continue to recommend diet sodas as a substitute for sugar-sweetened sodas.
  • My recommendation is to substitute water and other unsweetened beverages for the sugar sweetened beverages you are currently consuming. If you crave the fizz of sodas, drink carbonated water. If you need more taste, try herbal teas or infuse water with slices of lemon, lime, or your favorite fruit. If you buy commercial brands of flavored water, check the labels carefully. They may contain sugars or artificial sweeteners. Those you want to avoid.
  • For a more nuanced discussion of this issue, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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What Is The Best Diet For You?

Posted May 23, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Sorting Through The Dueling Diets

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

battle over best dietDiets are a lot like politics in today’s world. Everyone is absolutely convinced their diet is the best and absolutely convinced the other diets are terrible.

Remember the nursery rhyme: “Jack Sprat could eat no fat. His wife could eat no lean…”? Today’s diets remind me of that. They run the gamut from no fat to no carbohydrates. Surely, both extremes couldn’t be healthy. Or could they?

Some diets eliminate whole food groups. That couldn’t be a good thing. Or, could it?

So, what is the best diet for you?

In today’s article, I will give you the pros and cons of these dueling diets. Before I do that, however, let me give you some principles to put things into perspective.

General Principles For Evaluating Diets

How do you sort out the claims and counterclaims associated with the various diets? More importantly, how do you know which of the claims are true and which are misleading? Here are some general principles to help you separate the wheat from the chaff.  What’s the right diet for you?

We are omnivores. We can adapt to a wide variety of diets and do reasonably well. That means most people will do well on any of these diets short term.

wings proteinAnything is better than the standard American diet (SAD). It is high in sugar and refined carbohydrates. It is also high in saturated and trans fats. That is why proponents of every diet can claim that you will feel better and be healthier when you switch to their diet.

Processed and convenience foods are part of the problem. Most diets recommend “clean eating” (elimination of processed and convenience foods). Any diet that eliminates processed and convenience foods is likely to help you lose weight and get healthier. Caution: As soon as a diet becomes popular, food manufacturers rush in to provide pre-packaged, convenience foods to support that diet. Avoid the temptation to use those foods. Big Food Inc. does not have your best interests in mind. They are not your friends.

Most diets lead to a fairly rapid initial weight loss. This is because they restrict food choices and eliminate processed foods. When you eliminate familiar foods from someone’s diet, they instinctively eat less without even thinking about it. This rapid initial weight loss is part of the allure of almost every diet program. However, over time most people start adding back some of their favorite foods or find new foods they like, and the weight comes back.

Weight loss leads to improved blood parameters irrespective of diet composition. That is why every diet, no matter how bizarre, can claim it lowers your blood pressure, improves your blood sugar, lowers your cholesterol, and lowers your triglycerides.

Long term weight loss is virtually identical on every diet. Numerous clinical studies have compared long term weight loss on low fat diets, low carbohydrate diets, and virtually everything in between. Initial weight loss is more rapid on the low-carbohydrate diets. However, at the end of one or two years there is not a dime’s worth of difference in weight loss between any of the diets. The exception is the Vegan diet. Long term Vegans typically weigh less than their meat-eating counterparts, probably because the foods in the Vegan diet have low caloric density (fewer calories per serving).

Healthy carbs and healthy fats are more important than low carb or low fat diets. Ignore the claims and counter claims about low fat and low carb diets. Focus instead on diets that provide moderate amounts of whole grains instead of refined grains & sugar. Also focus on diets that provide moderate amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, especially the omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, instead of saturated and trans fats.

Focus on well balanced meals rather than individual foods. For example, moderate amounts of healthy carbohydrates will have relatively little effect on blood sugar and triglyceride levels as part of a plant-based meal that provides plenty of fiber and protein. However, those same carbohydrate-rich foods by themselves may cause a spike in both blood sugar and triglycerides.

best diet for youPlant-based diets rule. The Ornish diet (a very restrictive form of the Vegan diet) is the only diet that has been shown to reverse atherosclerosis in some people. The Vegan diet and the Mediterranean diet, which is largely plant-based, have been shown to be healthy long term. On the other hand, we simply don’t know whether low carbohydrate diets are healthy long term. Those clinical studies have not been done.

Saturated and trans fats are not your friends. They increase inflammation, which can have many serious long-term health consequences. In addition, the foods that are rich in saturated fats are often acid-forming foods, which can upset your acid-base balance.

We have 5 food groups for a reason. Each food group provides valuable nutrients (vitamins a & minerals) and phytonutrients. You may be able to replace the missing nutrients with supplementation, but you are unlikely to replace the phytonutrients with supplements – even those supplements that claim to be made from whole foods. You should be concerned about the long-term health consequences of any diet that eliminates whole food groups.

Low fat diets aren’t necessarily healthy. Whole food, low-fat diets like the Vegan diet are extremely healthy. However, as soon as health experts started recommending low-fat diets, Big Food Inc. stepped in to offer convenient low fat options. They simply replaced the fat with refined carbohydrates, sugar, and a witch’s brew of chemicals (Remember the part about Big Food Inc. not being your friend?). As a result, the low-fat diet consumed by most Americans is anything but healthy.

The supposed advantages of low carbohydrate diets are misleading. Low carbohydrate diets look very good when you compare them to the Big Food Inc version of the low-fat diet. However, when you compare them to something like the Vegan diet the advantages disappear.

Avoid sugar-sweetened and diet beverages. This should go without saying. Choose water instead. Add carbonation and/or a little lemon or lime juice for flavoring if necessary. Fortunately, most of the major diets exclude sugar-sweetened and diet beverages.

 

The Pros and Cons Of The Major Diets

It is not possible to cover each diet in depth in a single article, so this is meant to be a very brief overview of the major diets.

Low Fat Diets

The Dean Ornish Diet. This is a variation of the Vegan Diet that eliminates all oils, even vegetable oil.

Pros:

  • Whole food, plant-based diet.
  • All the advantages of the Vegan diet, plus it is the only diet shown to reverse atherosclerosis.

Cons:

  • Very restrictive.
  • Long-term adherence is low.

 

vegetablesThe Vegan Diet. This is a whole food, plant based diet. It uses plant proteins instead of meat and plant substitutes for dairy and eggs.

Pros:

  • Whole food, plant-based diet.
  • Associated with lower blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides, and inflammation.
  • Clinical studies show that the onset of major diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are delayed by at least 5-10 years. People on this diet live healthier, longer.

Cons:

  • Long-term adherence is relatively low, but some people stick with this diet for a lifetime.

 

Healthy Fat, Healthy Carb Diets

The Mediterranean Diet. This diet emphasizes fresh fruits & vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes and olive oil. It includes cheese, poultry and eggs in moderation.

whole food dietPros:

Cons:

  • Not designed specifically for weight loss. You will need to watch portion sizes and track calories if you want to lose weight on this diet.

 

The DASH Diet. This diet was specifically designed to help reduce the risk of hypertension and stroke. It is similar to the Mediterranean diet except that it restricts sodium and includes a wider range of lean meats and low-fat dairy products. It does not specifically include olive oil.

Pros:

  • Whole food diet.
  • Clinically proven to lower blood pressure  as effectively as some blood pressure medications.
  • Relatively easy to follow. Includes foods familiar to Americans.

Cons:

  • Not designed specifically for weight loss. You will need to watch portion sizes and track calories if you want to lose weight on this diet.

 

Low Carb Diets

meat protein dietThe Paleo Diet. The Paleo diet is supposedly based on the diet of our paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors. The diet is high in protein & fat, and low in carbohydrates. The diet eliminates grains, sugars, refined oils, dairy, legumes, and starchy fruits & vegetables. Most of the protein comes from meats, but the animals must be grass-fed. This reduces, but does not eliminate, saturated fat and gives a modest increase in omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. Thus, the meats included in this diet are healthier than the meats in other low carbohydrate diets. However, it does not turn red meats into health foods.

Anthropologists tell us that the premise of the Paleo diet is faulty. The diet of our paleolithic ancestors was highly dependent on the foods available in their environment. Some were hunters and gatherers. Others lived in areas where fruits & vegetables were prevalent and game was scarcer. Still others lived in areas where starchy root vegetables were an important part of their diet. Furthermore, the enzymes required for digestion of starches are inducible. We can easily adapt to the introduction of grains into our diet.

Pros:

  • Whole food diet.
  • The Paleo diet is associated with several short-term benefits including weight loss, improved blood sugar control and reduced cholesterol, triglycerides & blood pressure.

Cons:

The Atkins Diet. The Atkins diet is the granddaddy of the low-fat diets. It is a very low carbohydrate diet that restricts sugars, grains, high carbohydrate fruits and vegetables. The allure of the diet is that it includes as much fatty meats and saturated fats as you want.

Pros:

  • The Atkins diet is associated with several short-term benefits including weight loss, improved blood sugar control and reduced cholesterol, triglycerides & blood pressure.

Cons:

  • There are no studies evaluating the long-term benefits and risks of the Atkins diet.
  • Weight loss at the end of one or two years is no better than for the low-fat diets.
  • The high intake of saturated fat has the potential to increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.
  • It is a very restrictive diet. Long-term adherence to this diet is poor.

The Ketogenic Diet. The Ketogenic diet is even more restrictive than the Atkins diet. I have covered the pros and cons of the Ketogenic diet in a recent post, so I will refer you to that article, Is the Ketogenic Diet Safe for details. In short, the Ketogenic diet has some short-term benefits and some potential long-term risks. Ketone supplements mimic some, but not all, of the short-term benefits of the Ketogenic diet. Their long-term health risks are unknown.

 

What Is The Best Diet For You?

what diet is right for youWe are all different, so there is no perfect diet for everyone. Want to know how to find a diet that works for you?  Here are some things to think about.

  • If you are like most Americans, almost any of these diets is better than your current diet.
  • The good thing about all the diets reviewed in this article is:
    • They replace refined carbohydrates & sugars with healthier alternatives (The best of the diets also replace saturated & trans fats with healthier alternatives).
    • They emphasize whole foods rather than processed and convenience foods.
    • They eliminate sugar-sweetened and diet beverages.
    • They emphasize fresh vegetables and most include fresh fruit.
  • If you are looking for rapid initial weight loss:
    • The very restrictive diets at either extreme (very low fat or very low carb) are best because they eliminate familiar foods from the diet.
    • The very low carb diets are slightly more effective than low fat diets initially because of water loss, but weight loss on most low carb and low fat diets is identical after 1-2 years.
    • Because both the Mediterranean and DASH diets involve many familiar foods, you will need to pay more attention to portion sizes and total calories on these diets if your primary goal is to lose weight.
  • If you are looking for long term weight control, the Vegan diet is best, probably because most foods in the Vegan diet have low caloric density. Multiple studies have shown that Vegans weigh less than their meat-eating counterparts.
  • If you are looking for long term health benefits:
    • The Vegan and Mediterranean diets are clearly your best choices. They are backed by multiple clinical studies showing they reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia and other diseases.
    • The DASH diet is probably equally healthy. However, because it was designed to control blood pressure, most clinical studies have focused only on how well it reduces blood pressure.
    • There is no evidence that the low carb diets have any long-term health benefits, and there is reason to suspect they may have some long-term health risks.
  • I have serious concerns about long-term health risks for any diet that:
    • Eliminates whole food groups.
    • Is high in saturated and trans fats.
  • The effectiveness of any diet is dependent on how well you stick with it:
    • The long-term adherence to any of the very restrictive diets (either low carb or low fat) is low, although some people do stick with the Vegan diet for a lifetime.
    • Adherence is best with the Mediterranean and DASH diets, probably because many of the foods are familiar and readily available.

 

The Bottom Line

 

In this article I have reviewed the major low fat diets (the Dean Ornish diet and the Vegan diet), the major healthy carb, healthy fat diets (the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet), and the major low carb diets (the Paleo diet, the Atkins diet, and the Ketogenic diet). In summary:

 

  • If you are like most Americans, almost any of these diets is better than your current diet.
  • The good thing about all these diets is:
    • They replace refined carbohydrates & sugars with healthier alternatives (The best of the diets also replace saturated & trans fats with healthier alternatives).
    • They emphasize whole foods rather than processed and convenience foods.
    • They eliminate sugar-sweetened and diet beverages.
    • They emphasize fresh vegetables and most include fresh fruit.
  • If you are looking for rapid initial weight loss:
    • The very restrictive diets at either extreme (very low fat or very low carb) are best because they eliminate familiar foods from the diet.
    • The very low carb diets are slightly more effective than low fat diets initially because of water loss, but weight loss on most low carb and low fat diets is identical after 1-2 years.
    • Because both the Mediterranean and DASH diets involve many familiar foods, you will need to pay more attention to portion sizes and total calories on these diets if your primary goal is to lose weight.
  • If you are looking for long term weight control, the Vegan diet is best, probably because most foods in the Vegan diet have low caloric density. Multiple studies have shown that Vegans weigh less than their meat-eating counterparts.
  • If you are looking for long term health benefits:
    • The Vegan and Mediterranean diets are clearly your best choices. They are backed by multiple clinical studies showing they reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia and other diseases.
    • The DASH diet is probably equally healthy. However, because it was designed to control blood pressure, most clinical studies have focused only on how well it reduces blood pressure.
    • There is no evidence that the low carb diets have any long-term health benefits, and there is reason to suspect they may have some long-term health risks.
  • I have serious concerns about long-term health risks for any diet that:
    • Eliminates whole food groups.
    • Is high in saturated and trans fats.
  • The effectiveness of any diet is dependent on how well you stick with it:
    • The long-term adherence to any of the very restrictive diets (either low carb or low fat) is low, although some people do stick with the Vegan diet for a lifetime.
    • Adherence is best with the Mediterranean and DASH diets, probably because many of the foods are familiar and readily available.
  • For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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