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Video: Diet sodas may be hazardous to your health

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    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: This morning on TODAY'S HEALTH , a warning to diet soda drinkers. You may drink diet soda if you're watching your weight, but now new research suggests that could be hazardous to your overall health.

    VIEIRA: Diet soda has been portrayed as sexy, glamorous and guilt-free, but a new medical study is questioning the safety of diet soda , suggesting diet soda may be linked to serious health risks.

    Ms. MIRIAM NELSON (Friedman School of Nutrition, Tufts University): This study really shows us some new information to help sort of fill out the question of whether diet sodas are healthy, and what we see is that they're not.

    VIEIRA: For nine years, researchers at the University of Miami and Columbia University followed 2500 New Yorkers who drank diet soda every day. The study found that daily diet soda drinkers had a 61 percent higher risk of so-called vascular events, including stroke and heart attack, than those who did not drink any diet soda . The study did not look at specific diet sodas nor the amount of the diet soda people in the study drank each day. Hannah Gardener is the lead author in this study .

    Ms. HANNAH GARDENER: I can't tell you at this level of diet soda consumption it's safe and then above this other level it's unsafe, all I can say is what we found was that there was an increased risk of vascular disease among those who drank diet soda daily.

    VIEIRA: The American Beverage Association disputes the study , saying, "There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that diet soda uniquely causes increased risk of vascular events or stroke." Nutrition experts say the study doesn't answer the question why there may be a link between daily diet soda and vascular events.

    Ms. NELSON: We don't really understand the full mechanism of how these non-caloric sweeteners are being used in the body.

    VIEIRA: So should you ditch diet soda ? Nutrition experts say that would be going too far.

    Ms. NELSON: Occasionally, once or twice a week, that's just fine, but the reality is is that there are many people out there that are getting three and four diet sodas a day and those are the people I'm particularly worried about.

    VIEIRA: Dr. Nancy Snyderman is NBC 's chief medical editor. Good morning to you, Nancy .

    Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN reporting: Hey, Meredith.

    VIEIRA: This is a little confusing, the official study has not been released...

    SNYDERMAN: Right.

    VIEIRA: ...this is a press release from the National Heart Association .

    SNYDERMAN: Well, it's an abstract, so it's not just a press release, it is an abstract and it was presented at the stroke meeting, and there's some science behind this.

    VIEIRA: OK. But without being able to pinpoint the link...

    SNYDERMAN: Mm-hmm.

    VIEIRA: ...how much diet soda is too much diet soda ?

    SNYDERMAN: Well, what they've found and what they've reported was that for people who drank soda every day there was a 61 percent increased risk of a vascular event, something like a stroke. I think the real question and why the beverage industry is taking a stand and the scientists are saying, 'No, we stand by our data,' is that we don't know where the it is, what is it that might be the link? I think we need to sort of dial back our social patterns a little bit to the days of Julia Child where she would say, 'Hey, what's wrong with a teaspoon of sugar?' It's 16 calories, it's not going to make you fat and it's not going to kill you. But we have fallen in love with dietary sweeteners and what we've all found is they've made us like things sweeter; there's now some science that may rejigger the brain such that it makes you crave other things. So there's a link here somewhere, we just don't know quite what it is, but there's no doubt that we like things sweeter, and when we want things sweeter we want more of them.

    VIEIRA: But when it comes to the link, the American Beverage Association ...

    SNYDERMAN: Right.

    VIEIRA: ...is taking...

    SNYDERMAN: A hard stand.

    VIEIRA: Yeah, a hard stand against this study .

    SNYDERMAN: Right.

    VIEIRA: They say that one of the problems is things like family history and weight gain were not controlled in this study .

    SNYDERMAN: Well, they -- the scientists controlled things pretty much beyond that, there may always be a genetic component and weight gain per se I'm not so sure is important. The beverage industry does have a point that we don't really -- there's no reason to think that this is -- there's a villain in diet beverages, I drink them, but I think you have to remember it isn't water, it isn't -- there's nothing nutritional in it, it's a treat, so if you find yourself thinking, 'Oh, well, I'm going to get skinny because I'm drinking this every day,' think otherwise. Have a couple a week. But once you have one every day or so, I think you have to pay attention to the science. And what these scientists are calling for now is for more research, and there will be more, but this battle -- the lines are just being drawn.

    VIEIRA: Exactly.

    SNYDERMAN: This battle's heating up.

    VIEIRA: All right, Dr. Nancy , thank you so much .

    SNYDERMAN: You bet.

msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/10/2011 9:36:39 AM ET 2011-02-10T14:36:39

Just as you were starting to feel virtuous for having switched from sugary sodas to low- or no-calorie substitutes, a new study comes along suggesting that diet sodas might be bad for your head and your heart.

The study, which followed more than 2,500 New Yorkers for nine or more years, found that people who drank diet soda every day had a 61 percent higher risk of vascular events, including stroke and heart attack, than those who completely eschewed the diet drinks, according to researchers who presented their results today at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference in Los Angeles.

Still, the researchers aren’t ready to tell consumers to skip diet sodas. More studies need to be done before that happens, said the report’s lead author Hannah Gardener, an epidemiologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

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“I think diet soda drinkers need to stay tuned,” Gardener said. “I don’t think that anyone should be changing their behaviors based on one study. Hopefully this will motivate other researchers to do more studies.”

That advice may not stop some from skipping their diet drinks. “This is pretty scary,” said Denise Gainey, a 49-year-old administrative assistant from Amelia, Va. Worried that she might have inherited a higher risk of heart disease, Gainey wants to be careful. “I guess I’ll just be drinking a lot more water,” she said.

For the new study, researchers surveyed 2,564 north Manhattan residents about their eating behaviors, exercise habits, as well as cigarette and alcohol consumption. The study volunteers were also given physical check-ups that included blood pressure measurements and blood tests for cholesterol and other factors that might affect the risk for heart attack and stroke.

The increased likelihood of vascular events remained even after Gardener and her colleagues accounted for risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Pointing the finger more squarely at diet drinks, the researchers found no increased risk among people who drank regular soda.

Does this mean there’s something in diet sodas that hurts our blood vessels? Nobody knows the answer to that question, yet, Gardener said. There could be something else that people who drink diet sodas have in common, she explained.

For example, it’s possible that people who drink diet sodas are replacing those saved sugar calories with other unhealthy choices, Gardener said.

That explanation makes a lot of sense to Dr. Nehal N. Mehta, director of inflammatory risk cardiology at the University of Pennsylvania. Although the researchers know the total calories study volunteers were consuming, they weren’t able to account for unhealthy eating habits, Mehta said.

“Maybe along with the diet soda, people are grabbing a Big Mac and a large fries,” Mehta said. “Soda may not be the villain. It may be the other things people consume in association with diet soda. After all, what goes better with pizza or fries than a soda?”

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That said, it is always possible that there is something about diet soda that leads to vascular problems, Mehta said, adding that this is the second study to associate diet soda with health issues. An earlier study found that diet soda consumption was linked to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, which is also a risk factor for heart problems and stroke.

Caramel coloring linked to vascular issues
Further, Mehta said, there are animal studies suggesting a link between vascular problems and caramel-containing products. Among other things, caramel is the ingredient that gives the dark color to sodas like Coke and Pepsi, he explained.

Despite all of that, you probably don’t want to give up diet soda until — and if — larger studies confirm the results of this one, Mehta said.

That is, unless you’re someone with a lot of risk factors for stroke or heart disease, said Dr. Tudor Jovin, an associate professor of neurology and medicine and director of the Stroke Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“People with a lot of risk factors for vascular disease, might want to reduce the amount of diet soda they consume,” Jovin said. “Those risk factors would include high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, a family history of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and a history of cardiovascular events.”

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