Diet soda increases odds of heart attack and stroke

One 12-ounce diet soda may contain about 180 mg of aspartame, or 15 mg of aspartame per ounce. That equals about four-and-a-half packets of NutraSweet®.

by Mary Budinger — 

People who drink diet soda are much more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than are people who do not drink soda of any kind, according to a preliminary study by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “Diet soda is not an optimal substitute for sugar-sweetened beverages, and may be associated with a greater risk of stroke, myocardial infarction or vascular death than regular soda,” researchers concluded.

The study involved 2,564 people who were also part of the large, multiethnic Northern Manhattan Study. Since 1993, researchers have asked subjects to report how much and what kinds of soda they drank. During an average follow-up of 9.3 years, researchers found that people who reported drinking diet soda every day had a 61 percent higher risk of vascular events than those who reported drinking no soda. Even after researchers accounted for each patient’s metabolic syndrome, peripheral vascular disease and heart disease history, the increased risk persisted at a 48 percent higher rate.

Funding for this study was provided through a Javits Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute.

Critics argued that since the participants voluntarily reported how much diet soda they consumed, the results do not come from a rigorously controlled setting. “There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that diet soda uniquely causes increased risk of vascular events or stroke,” said Dr. Maureen Storey, senior vice president of science policy for the American Beverage Association.

Nevertheless, this is the first time diet soda has been officially linked directly to vascular events. A 2007 study published in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation, found that people who drink one or more soft drinks a day have a greater than 50 percent higher risk of developing the heart disease precursor known as metabolic syndrome than people who drink less than one soda a day. It did not matter if they drank regular or diet soda. Metabolic syndrome involves a constellation of health problems — large waist circumference, high blood pressure and low levels of “good” cholesterol — that have been strongly linked to developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

The new Miami Miller School of Medicine study does not say what exactly about diet soda may cause heart disease. Cause and effect are definitely harder to prove. However, some experts point to aspartame, the key sweetener in most diet drinks. Dr. H. J. Roberts, author of Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic and an expert in the field of aspartame’s effects, has said that aspartame causes an irregular heart rhythm and interacts with all cardiac medications. He says it damages the cardiac conduction system and can cause sudden death. He says aspartame also can be responsible for “numerous misdiagnoses, including arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.” Cori Brackett’s film, “Sweet Misery,” is an acclaimed documentary about the health dangers of aspartame.

One 12-ounce diet soda may contain about 180 mg of aspartame, or 15 mg of aspartame per ounce. That equals about four-and-a-half packets of NutraSweet®.

Americans drink 4.2 billion gallons of diet soda each year, nearly one-third of all the soda consumed. The idea that diet soda helps you lose weight is a marketing perception unsupported by the facts. Solid research on diet soda and weight gain was reported to the American Diabetes Association at its annual meeting in 2006.

Sharon P. Fowler, MPH, and colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, looked at eight years of data from 1,550 people aged 25 to 64. “What did not surprise us was that total soft drink use was linked to overweight and obesity,” Fowler reported. “What was surprising was when we looked at people only drinking diet soft drinks, their risk of obesity was even higher. There was a 41 percent increase in risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day.”

Researchers have found that any kind of sweet taste sends signals to the body to store carbohydrates and fats, which in turn causes the body to crave more food. Sweet tastes promote the release of insulin, which blocks the body’s ability to burn fat. This is an adaptive response, because for millions of years, sweet tastes have meant that blood-glucose levels are about to rise, and when there is excess sugar, it must be stored for times when food is not readily available.

Sandra Cabot, M.D., author and international lecturer, explained the issue with diet soda this way: “When you ingest the toxic chemical aspartame, it is absorbed from the intestines and passes immediately to the liver where it is taken inside the liver via the liver filter. The liver then breaks down (metabolizes) aspartame to its toxic components — phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol. This process requires a lot of energy from the liver, making less energy available for fat burning and metabolism, which will result in fat storing and elevated blood-sugar levels. Excess fat may build up inside the liver cells, causing fatty liver, and when this starts to occur, it is extremely difficult to lose weight. In my vast experience, any time that you overload the liver, you will increase the tendency to gain weight easily.”

No published study has demonstrated that drinking diet soda will cause a person to lose weight.

Sodas contain a mixed bag of problems, including high-fructose corn syrup, caffeine, phosphoric acid, empty calories and Bisphenol A in the can linings. A 2007 U.K. study by researchers at the University of Southampton found clear evidence that food colors and sodium benzoate can trigger hyperactivity in many children. The preservative sodium benzoate has been the subject of concern about more than just behavior. When mixed with the additive vitamin C in soft drinks, it forms benzene, a carcinogenic substance. Benzene damages bone marrow and can cause anemia because of a decrease in red blood cells. It can also cause excessive bleeding and depress the immune system.

Soda is the subject of bans at schools and higher sales taxes for good reason.


Mary Budinger is an Emmy award-winning journalist who writes about complementary and alternative medicine. She co-authored the book, An Alphabet of Good Health. 602-494-1999.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 30, Number 2, April/May 2011.

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