Sipping Sugary Drinks? They Could Increase Your Risk of Death

Sipping Sugary Drinks? They Could Increase Your Risk of Death

New research suggests that if you want to keep your heart healthy, you should avoid these beverages.

If you frequently reach for a soda or sugary sweet tea to quench your thirst, it could be time to break this habit.

Consumption of drinks with added sugars has been associated with weight gain, obesity, hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Research also suggests that drinking too many sugary beverages—such as carbonated and noncarbonated sodas, fruit drinks and punches, energy drinks and sports drinks—is also associated with a greater risk of early death. This could be bad news if you’re one of the nearly 50 percent of Americans who consume a sugar-sweetened beverage on any given day.

How many pre-sweetened drinks are too much?
People who drink two or more glasses of any type of soda—sugary or diet—each day are at greater risk of death from any cause, according to a September 2019 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

For the study, researchers followed about 450,000 people from 10 different European countries for nearly two decades. None of the participants had heart disease, cancer or diabetes before they study began. The study found an association between a sugary soda habit and digestive disease, meaning the people who drank at least two glasses per day were more likely to develop a digestive disorder. The researchers noted that the spike in blood sugar levels triggered by sugar-sweetened sodas may affect insulin sensitivity and the healthy functioning of the gut and liver.

Another study published in March 2019 in the journal Circulation found that increased intake of sugar-sweetened beverages was linked to early mortality, primarily through cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Researchers looked at the drink consumption of almost 38,000 men from the Health Professional’s Follow-Up study (during 1986 to 2014) and more than 80,000 women from the Nurse’s Health study (covering 1980 to 2014). They found that people who consumed two or more servings per day of sugar-sweetened drinks had a 31 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease compared to those who drank these beverages less than once per month. Each serving per day of a sugar-sweetened beverage was associated with 10 percent higher risk of early CVD death.

The association with cancer was more modest, with a 16 percent greater risk of early mortality for those who drank more than two servings per day, compared to people who drank less than one per month. Among women, there was a link between sugar-sweetened beverage intake and breast cancer. Among both sexes, there was an association with colon cancer.

Prior research presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA) in March 2018 reported somewhat similar findings. Within that study of more than 17,000 adults over the age of 45, people who drank more than 24 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages per day had twice the risk of death from heart disease than those who drank less than one ounce per day. In addition, the study also showed that people who consumed the highest amounts of sugary drinks had a greater risk of dying from all causes, including other cardiovascular ailments.

Neither study could determine that sugary drinks were a direct cause of death, but it strengthens the association between cardiovascular risk, early mortality and pre-sweetened beverages.

But just because the studies focused on drinks does not give anyone a pass to binge on sweet snacks. Sugar-sweetened foods have been linked to obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

What you can drink instead
Cutting back on sugary drinks is a small change that can lead to big health benefits. You can replace soda, fruit juice or energy drinks with a variety of good-for-you choices.

Water: Whether it’s still or bubbly, water is one of the best beverages you can drink for your health. Add fresh fruit to give it more flavor. If you crave the carbonation of soda, try switching to seltzer. In addition to the hydrating benefits, it may help people feel more full when consumed with meals. 

Coconut Water: Low in calories and high in minerals like potassium, coconut water is a great choice to replace sugar-laden drinks. Read the label to be sure it is 100 percent coconut water and free of added sugar.

Coffee: Moderate coffee consumption is safe—even probably beneficial—for most people, but some may have conditions (like arrhythmias) that require them to avoid coffee. It's up to you to adjust the way you drink it. Start by cutting back on all of the added sugars, syrups and sweetened creamers. If you need a cold drink, pour your unsweetened coffee over ice.

Tea: Similar to coffee, drink your tea with no added sugars. If you love iced tea, make your own unsweetened version. Better yet, switch to hot black or green tea. There is some evidence that both drinks can lessen heart disease risk factors.

Low-fat milk: The AHA recommends consuming low-fat dairy products as part of a heart-healthy diet. Swap your soda or juice for one cup of skim or 1 percent milk. Limit or stay away from whole milk and keep your total dairy intake at about 3 cups per day.

Smoothies: There are countless ways to make a healthy smoothie. Toss your choice of fresh fruits and veggies into the blender and add water or low-fat dairy—milk, non-fat Greek yogurt or a dairy alternative. Try one of these smoothie options. But stick to one per day, as a meal or snack, or else the calories can start adding up.

When it comes to reducing your pre-sweetened beverages, start small. Mix your favorite juice with seltzer to cut back on calories. Or begin swapping out one sugary drink per day with any of the options above.

What about artificially-sweetened beverages?
It may seem like swapping sugar-filled drinks for artificially-sweetened ones would be a no-brainer. These drinks do often contain low to no calories, regardless of the type of artificial sweetener used, but they also offer no nutritional benefits—and some research points to some health risks.

In that same September 2019 JAMA Internal Medicine study, researchers found that people who drank two or more glasses of diet, or artificially sweetened soda daily were at higher risk for developing heart disease and also at greater risk of death from any cause.

Meanwhile, that March 2019 study in Circulation found a greater increase in early death from cardiovascular disease only in women who drank four or more artificially-sweetened beverages per day. The same risk was not found in men, nor did the research link artificially-sweetened drinks to cancer mortality for either gender.

In February 2019, another study reported a 23 percent higher risk of stroke among women who consumed two or more artificially-sweetened drinks per day than those drinking less than 12 ounces per week. Those findings, published in Stroke, looked at data from almost 82,000 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study.  

Both studies note that research on artificial sweeteners is still very preliminary and more information is needed. If you do find yourself often reaching for one or more sugar-sweetened drinks per day, it may still be beneficial to start replacing them with an artificially-sweetened version. But the best change you can make is swapping soda, fruit juice or sports drinks for more water.

When making any major dietary changes, keep your healthcare provider (HCP) in the loop. During your next physical, inform your HCP if you drink a lot of soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages so they can monitor your heart health.

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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