Replacing sugary drinks with diet versions may not be any healthier for the heart, a large, new study suggests.
French researchers found that people who regularly drank artificially sweetened beverages had a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, versus people who avoided those beverages. In fact, they were no less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than people who regularly downed sugary drinks.
The findings do not pin the blame on artificial sweeteners, per se, one expert said. People who use them may have an overall diet, or other lifestyle habits, that raise their risk of heart trouble.
"This doesn't indicate that artificially sweetened beverages caused the increased risk of cardiac events," said Colleen Rauchut Tewksbury, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Cutting down on added sugar is definitely a good thing, said Tewksbury, who was not involved in the study.
And if diet drinks help people do that, she added, then they can be a positive replacement.
But, Tewksbury stressed, that's "just one component" of a whole diet: If people switch to zero-calorie sodas, then eat extra fries or indulge in dessert, the effort is lost.
The findings, published online Oct. 26 as a research letter in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, are based on over 100,000 French adults taking part in an ongoing nutrition and health study.
Starting in 2009, the participants completed diet surveys every six months, reporting on what they'd consumed over the past 24 hours. Based on those records, researchers divided them into six groups: non-consumers, low consumers and high consumers of sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened drinks.
Over a decade, 1,379 study participants suffered a first-time heart attack, severe chest pain or stroke. And on average, the risk was 32% higher among high consumers of diet drinks, versus non-consumers. The risk among high consumers of sugary drinks was 20% higher.
Of course, people might choose diet beverages because they need to lose weight, or manage a health problem, acknowledged the researchers -- led by Eloi Chazelas, of Sorbonne Paris Nord University.
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