Sipping on a sugary soda while reading this? If so, you may want to put it down. While you may know that sweetened drinks may do a number on your weight, did you know that drinking them regularly can also up your chances of having a heart attack or stroke?
A review of studies from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at the risk of fructose, an added sugar that is mainly consumed in sugar-sweetened drinks, on heart health. The evidence they collected is alarming. One large study found that people who drank two or more servings of sweet beverages a day had a 35% higher risk of developing heart disease. And people who drank at least one serving each day had a 16% greater chance of stroke, compared to those who had none.
“These results do not surprise me at all,” says integrative medicine physician Robin Miller, MD. For one thing, sugar calories provide no nutrients and contribute to weight gain and even obesity. This alone puts you at a greater risk for heart problems.
But the fructose in sugary sodas adds another layer to the problem. “For years we have known about the risks of fructose-sweetened drinks,” says Miller. Fructose is dangerous to the heart because of the way the body metabolizes it — in the liver. This can cause fatty liver disease, higher triglyceride levels (fat in your blood) and insulin resistance. “I urge all my patients to stop drinking them,” says Miller.
And while it may not be a surprise that excess sugar can contribute to diabetes, the research showed that people who had one or two sweet drinks a day also had a 26% increased chance of developing it.
Authors of the study also noted that carbonated sweet sodas aren’t the only drinks that contribute to heart, stroke and diabetes risk – so do all drinks with added sugar. This includes your favorite sports drinks, sweet teas and many fruit juices. It doesn’t include diet drinks containing artificial sweeteners, but those have their own concerns.
Want to keep your heart in tip-top shape? Obviously you should stop with the soda habit, and Dr. Miller suggests you don’t take your time doing so. “I usually advise the cold-turkey method,” she says. “It is better to just cut it out rather than taper it off.”
But if you can’t convince your loved one — or yourself — to go cold turkey, Dr. Miller says to lower your intake by a drink per day until you’re totally off it, and replace those lost fluids with good old-fashioned water. If that sounds too boring, “flavor the water with real fruit,” she says.
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