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Diet soda and heart disease?

Posted Feb. 14, 2011, at 6:29 p.m.

If you’ve heard about the study relating diet soda consumption to increased risk of stroke and heart attack, don’t put down that diet soda just yet.

The study followed more than 2,500 New Yorkers for nine years or more. The results were that people who drank diet soda every day had a 61 percent higher risk of stroke and heart attack than those who didn’t.

Now, granted, no one has ever told you that diet soda was healthy for you. But is it really as bad as this latest study suggests?

When a study such as this comes out in the media it induces fear in people that may lead to inappropriate behavior change. For health reasons, a person may have been told to stop drinking regular soda and switch to diet soda. Now they are confused. What is wrong with drinking diet soda? Should they go back to drinking regular soda? Haven’t low-calorie sweeteners been proved safe?

There is a body of scientific evidence showing that diet soda is a helpful weight management tool. Claiming it is harmful without really credible evidence is doing a disservice to people trying to lose weight or those with diabetes who use products with artificial sweeteners to help control their blood sugar.

There are many flaws in this study. Caloric intake and salt intake weren’t looked at — factors that influence both heart disease and stroke. Family history of heart disease or stroke weren’t controlled for. The sample size of those who claimed they drank diet soda daily was quite small — only about 4.5 percent of the total, and their intake was self-reported. The incidence of obesity over time wasn’t looked at. The overall study population wasn’t representative of the U.S. population either in age or race.

This information is a preliminary report — it hasn’t been published or peer-reviewed for a scientific journal. The results could easily have occurred by chance. It may be that the diet soda isn’t the villain at all but instead the other things that people consume when they drink diet soda — maybe the famous New York-style pizza is the culprit!

There is a lot of skepticism surrounding low-calorie sweeteners. Therefore, foods containing them are some of the most thoroughly studied in the food supply. The safety of low-calorie sweeteners has been reaffirmed time and time again by leading health and regulatory groups worldwide.

My goal is not to push the consumption of diet soda. I do not believe it is a necessary part of any diet. However, when we forbid an item, that is when it becomes coveted. If you would like to have a diet soda once in a while, my recommendation is “all things in moderation.” What is moderation when it comes to soda? Limit your intake to 16 or 20 ounces daily. Don’t forget that your body also wants and needs its daily supply of plain water.

And remember, nutrition is a science, not an opinion survey.

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