Consumption of sweetened beverages, especially regular, non-diet soda, has been linked to many health conditions, including weight gain/obesity, type 2 diabetes, cavities/tooth decay, kidney problems and osteoporosis.
Considering soda and other sugary drinks are so strongly linked to weight gain and diabetes — two conditions that affect heart health — you would think coronary heart disease would also be on this list. But surprisingly, few studies have examined the relationship between sweetened beverage consumption and heart disease, which is why researchers in Boston attempted to determine if there is a link between the two.
Using a food frequency questionnaire, they examined the beverage drinking habits of 42,883 men ages 40 to 75 from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. The questionnaire, which was sent out every four years over a 22-year span (1986–2008), asked the men to report their daily intake of both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages. (One drink equaled 12 ounces.)
Every two years, participants were also asked whether they had experienced a heart attack. In addition, researchers collected blood samples from 18,225 of the men between 1993 and 1995 to test cholesterol and other inflammatory markers.
During analysis, several adjustments were made to account for other factors that could affect heart health — smoking, exercise, alcohol intake, multivitamin use, family history of coronary heart disease, weight gain or loss during the study, adherence to a low-calorie or heart-healthy diet, and body mass index, to name a few.
Sugar Does Not Do a Heart Good
Not surprisingly, results showed that sugary drinks did negatively affect heart health. Specifically, after 22 years, 3,683 men developed coronary heart disease. Participants who drank the most sugary beverages (between 4.5/week and 7.5/day) had a 20 percent higher relative risk of coronary heart disease than those who drank none.
Sugar-sweetened drinks also were significantly associated with increased triglycerides, C-reactive protein, IL-6, and other inflammatory markers, all of which are predictors of heart disease. In addition, the soda drinkers had decreased HDL — the good, protective type of cholesterol.
On the other hand, artificially sweetened drinks (like diet sodas) did not appear to have any affect on the development of coronary heart disease or on cholesterol and other markers.
Switch to Diet Soda? Not so Fast
If you are lover of sugary sodas, you might think that switching to diet soda may be the way to go to reduce your heart disease risk and many other health problems associated with regular soda. Yes, diet soda is calorie-free, and this study did show that artificially sweetened drinks don’t pose a risk to your heart. However, diet sodas and artificial sweeteners still pose their own unique health risks.
Aspartame, the sweetener used in most diet sodas, has been linked to neurological diseases, as well as other problems like headaches, anxiety, and dizziness, even though it is deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration. And research has shown that, even though artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame are calorie-free, they can actually cause weight gain in the long term!
If you want to protect your heart, brain, waistline, and the rest of your body, the best beverage option available is plain and simple — literally. It’s water. If you’re a soda addict and just can’t give up fizzy drinks, try seltzer or sparkling water with a splash of cranberry juice or lemon wedges for flavor. Other healthy beverage options include tea (especially green), coconut water, and even your morning cup of coffee.
If you want to continue enjoying diet or even regular soda, consider making it a once-a-week treat instead of an everyday thing. By minimizing your consumption, you may find that, over time, the taste becomes less and less appealing and you’ll give it up for good!
 De Koning L et al. Sweetened beverage consumption, incident coronary heart disease and biomarkers of risk in men. Circulation. 2012 March 12. [Epub ahead of print.]
 Lavin JH et al. The effect of sucrose- and aspartame-sweetened drinks on energy intake, hunger and food choice in female, moderately restrained eaters. Int J Obes. 1997 Jan;21(1):37-42.