When given a choice between a sugar-filled soda or its artificially sweetened "diet" alternative, you would think it'd be smarter to reach for the "sugar-free" option. After all, you've heard time and time again about all the havoc that sugar can wreak on your body.
But what if we told you those artificial sweeteners might not be that great for you, either? According to new research published in the American Heart Association's (AHA) journal Stroke, the sweeteners used in diet drinks and juices are linked to a higher risk of having a stroke or developing dementia.
In the April 2017 study, researchers asked more than 4,000 participants to answer questions about their eating and drinking habits three separate times over a seven-year period. Then, for the next 10 years, they continued to follow the participants and noted which of them had a stroke or developed dementia.
Ultimately, the researchers found that participants who drank at least one artificially sweetened drink per day were nearly three times more likely to have a stroke or develop dementia — even after adjusting for other factors, such as age, sex, caloric intake, and presence of the Alzheimer's risk gene apolipoprotein E.
But Drinks With Real Sugar Aren't Off the Hook
Before you dump your diet soda and switch back to the real sugary stuff, consider this: Another April 2017 study from the same group of researchers suggests that regularly sweetened beverages might pose similar problems.
In this second study, which was published in the Alzheimer's Association's journal Alzheimer's and Dementia, the researchers found that consuming one or more sugary drinks per day was linked to early markers of Alzheimer's disease, including lower brain volume and poorer performance on memory tests. Yikes.
So what's a thirsty person to do?
First, keep in mind that there are some limitations to both studies: The participants were overwhelmingly white, for example, and both were observational studies that found association, not causation. So more research is needed.
It's also worth noting that sipping on artificially sweetened drinks may still be a useful dietary modification for some people.
"We know that limiting added sugars is an important strategy to support good nutrition and healthy body weights, and until we know more, people should use artificially sweetened drinks cautiously," Rachel K. Johnson, PhD, past chair of the AHA's Nutrition Committee and professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont, said in a press release. "They may have a role for people with diabetes and in weight loss, but we encourage people to drink water, low-fat milk or other beverages without added sweeteners."
Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, nutrition director at the Good Housekeeping Institute, has similar recommendations.
"For now, limit diet sodas when you can, and cut back as much as possible on sugary beverages," she says. "Regardless, your best option, no matter what, is to fill up on water, seltzer, and unsweetened coffee and tea beverages (which are great sources of antioxidants!) as much as possible."
So put down that soda — diet or otherwise — won't you? (And maybe give these infused water recipes a try instead!)