Newly added to the list of things that are maybe killing you: diet soda. You know, the artificially sweetened beverage that you might be drinking in place of its sugary counterpart that experts previously said will kill you. Honestly, it’s getting a little hard to pick up a beverage these days (alcohol, milk, coffee, sparkling water, tap water) without wondering if it’s contributing to your untimely demise.
But back to diet soda. You’ve probably seen the headlines about a new study linking diet soda consumption with a higher risk of death. Which, yeah, big if true! Here’s what you need to know about that.
In early September, JAMA Internal Medicine published a massive European study that linked both regular and diet soda to a higher chance of early death. “We found that people who drank two or more glasses of soft drinks a day were at greater risk of dying earlier [from any cause], irrespective of whether they were sugar-sweetened or artificially sweetened,” lead study author Amy Mullee, Ph.D., a professor at the University College Dublin Institute of Food and Health, tells SELF. Specifically, those who often had two or more glasses of sugar-sweetened soda every day were 8 percent more likely to die early than those who kept their soda consumption to less than one glass a month, and those who regularly had two or more glasses a day of diet soda were 26 percent more likely to die early than those in the less-than-a-glass-of-diet-soda-a-month club.
So, not great. The regular soda part might not come as a surprise, but isn’t the whole point of diet soda to be a little bit less detrimental to your health than the sugary stuff? Before you start pouring liters of your favorite artificially sweetened drink down the drain, you should know that this study is not quite the diet soda death knell it seems to be.
Here’s exactly what the researchers found
Between 1992 and 2000, the researchers recruited 521,330 individuals from over 10 European countries for their study. After excluding anyone who reported having cancer, heart disease, a history of stroke, or diabetes (in addition to people who didn’t include key information like how to follow up with them), the researchers were left with 451, 743 individuals who had an average age of 50.8, with 71.1 percent of the participants identifying as women.
Next the researchers recorded whenever one of the study participants died as well as their cause of death. Over the follow-up period, 41,693 of them died. (Not everyone enrolled at the same time, but on average, study subjects participated for 16.4 years.)
Then the researchers analyzed the relationship between who died, their cause of death, and the soda-drinking habits they reported at the start of the study. To make things a bit easier, the researchers grouped various causes of death into a few common categories, like cancer, circulatory diseases, digestive diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases. They also analyzed a few illnesses within those overarching categories.
Cancer was by far the biggest cause of death, killing just over 43 percent of the people who died during the study. But the researchers found no statistically significant link between cancer deaths and regular or diet soda consumption. I repeat: Nothing about this study suggests that drinking any kind of soda gives you cancer. The researchers even looked at specific cancers, like breast cancer, and still found no statistically significant association.
The next leading cause of death in the study was circulatory diseases, namely ischemic heart disease (also called coronary artery disease or CAD, the most common type of heart disease and the cause of most heart attacks) and cerebrovascular diseases (strokes). Circulatory diseases killed 21.8 percent of the study participants who died. This in itself isn’t really surprising, as cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Interestingly, though, there was an association between these illnesses and consuming artificially sweetened drinks. People who had two or more glasses a day of artificially sweetened soda or artificially sweetened and regularly sweetened soda had a higher risk of mortality from circulatory diseases than people who had less than a glass of any kind of soft drink per month. But weirdly enough this wasn’t true for those who had the same amount of soda with real sugar.