Still struggling to kick a daily soda habit?
New research that shows an association between consuming sugary drinks and death might be the final straw that gets you to give up soda and juice — for good.
In a study presented at a recent American Heart Association (AHA) scientific meeting this month, researchers found that adults who drank a lot of sweet beverages, including soft drinks, juice, and fruit drinks, may face an increased risk of dying from heart disease, as well as other health issues.
Researchers from Emory University and other institutions tracked the diets and health of 17,930 black and white adults over the age of 45 for about six years, using the data from the REasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study.
“There were two parts of this question we wanted to understand,” Jean Welsh, PhD, MPH, a study author, assistant professor at Emory University, and research director with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said in a statement.
“Do added sugars increase risk of death from heart disease or other causes, and, if so, is there a difference in risk between sugar-sweetened beverages and sugary foods? We believe this study adds strong data to what already exists highlighting the importance of minimizing sugary beverages in our diet,” she said.
The results showed that adults who consumed at least 24 ounces of sugary drinks daily — equivalent to three cans of soda — had twice the risk of fatal coronary heart disease compared with participants who drank less than 1 ounce.
Those who drank sugary drinks also had an increased likelihood of death from all other causes compared to those who barely drank any of those drinks.
Interestingly, the researchers didn’t find a link between eating sugary foods — such as candy, desserts, and sweetened cereals — and death from coronary heart disease and other cardiovascular conditions.
The distinction may be related to how the body metabolizes sweet food, which tends to balance the sugar with protein and fat, compared with drinks like soda, which generally contain no other nutrients and tend to cause an insulin spike.
Some experts also point to the high concentration of sugar in sweet beverages as a potential blame for poor health.
“It’s largely related to volume. There are so many more grams of sugar in a soda than a cookie because you need to add a lot of sugar to [soda] before it starts to taste sweet,” said Dr. Michael Miedema, a research cardiologist at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation. “Once you start dissolving sugar into a liquid, you can get a lot more in there.”
What happens when you drink sugar?
Study authors note that their research doesn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship between drinking sweetened beverages and death from heart disease. Rather, it shows that there’s an association between the two.
“The main limitation of a study like this is that it’s observational,” Miedema told Healthline. “Researchers are simply watching what happens to people who take in more sugar. Participants might be doing quite a few others things, such as eating more salt and saturated fats and less fruit and vegetables, that factor in here.”
The report does, however, fit into a larger context of research that shows high amounts of sugar might be dangerous for our bodies, Miedema added.
Research from 2014 found that U.S. adults who consumed a lot of foods and drinks with added sugar were more likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
Findings from another study showed that people are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes if they drank two sugar-sweetened beverages per day compared with participants who sipped less than one per month.
In addition to foods with added sugars, items that are full of simple carbohydrates also quickly break down into sugars that may negatively impact your health.
“If you look at all the studies combined, there seems to be evidence that simple carbohydrates — like those found in white bread, white rice, pasta, cookies, candies, and soda — are not healthy for us, especially in larger volumes,” Miedema said.
How much soda is safe to drink?
Since most of us probably won’t completely give up our favorite sodas and juices, how much is actually safe to drink?
The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that less that 10 percent of your daily caloric intake come from added sugars. The World Health Organization agrees, but adds that keeping sugar intake below 5 percent of your overall diet would be even better.
According to the AHA, women and men should consume no more than 100 and 150 calories of added sugar, respectively.
Most medical advice recommends sticking to water when you’re thirsty and treating sugary drinks as special treats.
Limiting the frequency and quantity of sugary beverage consumption is key to achieving good health, said Miedema.
“A can of soda each week probably won’t do much harm. But we know that when unhealthy behaviors become part of a routine, it becomes difficult to control, so it’s probably better to avoid it altogether,” he said.
As for diet sodas, the study didn’t mention a link between no- or low-calorie sweeteners and death. However, Miedema said people who drink diet soda might not be off the hook.
“It’s tricky. Diet sodas don’t have any sugar or caloric value, so you don’t get that big insulin spike, which seems to be a good thing,” he explained. “But some small studies show that there are hormonal changes that happen in response to just tasting something sweet, so diet soda might not necessarily be a better alternative.”