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A recent study from Dr. Susan Swithers of Purdue University has found that the difference between sugar-sweetened soft drinks and artificially sweetened soft drinks is not at all what most of us think.

The truth about diet soft drinks is not what most of us believe. Sugar-sweetened beverages, Dr. Susan Swithers tells us, don't necessarily lead to weight gain, and artificially sweetened soft drinks don't necessarily lead to weight loss.

And drinking diet soft drinks may cause some of the negative health effects most users of zero-calorie and low-calorie soft drink consumers are trying to avoid.

Here are the highlights Dr. Swithers has identified in the last 20 years of research:

1. The San Antonio Heart Study followed 3,682 young adults, asking them to come in for weighing 7 to 8 years after their graduation from high school. The San Antonio Heart Study researchers found that:

  • Young adults who drank 1 or 2 diet soft drinks (or no diet soft drinks at all) at all tended to gain weight, on average 1.04 units of BMI (body mass index, which takes both height and weight into account).
  • Young adults who drank 3 to 10 diet soft drinks per week gained on average 1.46 units of BMI.
  • Young adults who drank 11 to 22 diet soft drinks per week gained on average 1.50 units of BMI.
  • Young adults who drank more than 22 diet soft drinks per week gained on average 1.78 units of BMI.

2. The Health Professionals Follow-Up Study followed 37,380 men for 22 years. Men in the study who drank sugar-sweetened soft drinks were 9% more likely to develop high blood pressure than men who didn't drink any soft drinks at all. Men in the study who drank no-calorie soft drinks were 43% more likely to develop high blood pressure than men who didn't drink any soft drinks at all.

3. The Nurses Health Study followed 88,540 women for 38 years. Women in the study who drank 2 or more sugar-sweetened soft drinks were 28% more likely to develop heart disease than women who didn't drink any soft drinks at all. Women in the study who drank 2 or more artificially sweetened soft drinks were 93% more likely to develop heart disease than women who didn't drink any soft drinks at all.

4. Drinking sugar-free soft drinks also increased the risk of heart disease in men, although not as much. The Health Professionals Follow-Up Study found that men who consumed from 4-1/2 to (this is not a typo) 126 sugar-sweetened soft drinks per week were only 4% more likely to have heart disease than men who didn't drink any soft drinks at all. Men who consumed from 4-1/2 to 49 (the maximum reported in the study) sugar-free soft drinks per week were 21% more likely to have heart disease than men who didn't drink any soft drinks at all.

And weight gain, hypertension, and heart disease aren't the only conditions that are aggravated by drinking sugar-free soft drinks.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Laska MN, Murray DM, Lytle LA, Harnack LJ. Longitudinal associations between key dietary behaviors and weight gain over time: transitions through the adolescent years. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2012 Jan. 20(1):118-25. doi: 10.1038/oby.2011.179. Epub 2011 Jun 23.
  • Swithers SE. Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements. Trends Endocrinol Metab. 2013 Jul 3. doi:pii: S1043-2760(13)00087-8. 10.1016/j.tem.2013.05.005. [Epub ahead of print].
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