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Sodas, fruit drinks and other sugary beverages linked to higher risk of heart disease in women

The American Heart Association recommends that added sugar from all sources be limited to no more than 100 calories a day (about 6 teaspoons) for women and to 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons) a day for men.

drinking soda
Drinking one or more sugar-sweetened fruit drinks a day was associated with a 42 percent increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, while drinking that amount of a sugar-sweetened soft drink raised the risk by 23 percent.
Photo by Timur M on Unsplash

Women who drink even a single soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage daily are at greater risk of developing heart disease, according to a study published this week in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

This is just the latest in a string of studies that have found an association between the regular consumption of sugary drinks and an increased risk of heart disease. A study published in 2019 found, for example, that the more sugary beverages people consume, the greater their risk of dying early from any cause, but particularly from heart disease.

As I’ve noted in Second Opinion before, limiting sugary beverages is apparently a challenge for many Americans. Although the consumption of such beverages in the United States has declined since 2000, surveys have shown a slight rebound in recent years, in large part due to increased sales of energy drinks and sports drinks.

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Study details

For the current study, a team of researchers led by Cheryl Anderson, a professor of family and public health at the University of California San Diego, analyzed data from more than 106,178 women participants in the long-running California Teacher’s Study. When they entered the study in the mid-1990s, the women had filled out detailed questionnaires about their diet, including what they drank and how much. At that time, their average age was 52, and none had been diagnosed with heart disease, stroke or diabetes.

The women were followed for 20 years. At the end of that period, 8,848 of them had developed cardiovascular disease, 5,258 had had a stroke, 2,677 had had a heart attack, and 2,889 had undergone a surgical procedure (such as angioplasty) to open clogged arteries.

The researchers then looked to see how the risk of having one of those cardiovascular outcomes was for the women who regularly consumed sugary beverages compared to those who rarely or never drank them. Sugary beverages were defined as sugar-sweetened soft drinks, bottled waters, teas and fruit drinks (not 100 percent fruit juices).

The analysis revealed that consuming one or more sugary beverages daily was associated with a 20 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease. It was also linked with a 26 percent greater likelihood of undergoing a procedure to unclog arteries and a 21 percent greater chance of having a stroke.

The correlation was particularly strong for two particular types of beverages. Drinking one or more sugar-sweetened fruit drinks a day was associated with a 42 percent increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, while drinking that amount of a sugar-sweetened soft drink raised the risk by 23 percent.

These findings held after adjusting for factors known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, including age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, smoking history, family history of heart disease, physical activity levels and the use of oral contraceptives or menopausal hormone therapy.

Limitations and implications

This is an observational study, so it can’t prove a connection between the regular consumption of sugary beverages and an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular outcomes. In addition, the participants self reported their dietary information, which may or may not have been accurately recalled.

The women were also asked for that dietary information only once during the course of the 20-year study. It’s quite possible that their dietary choices — including the beverages they drank — changed during that time period.

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Still, this study’s findings are consistent with others that have assessed the relationship between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and the risk of cardiovascular disease. Also, as the researchers point out, there are good reasons to think that sugar may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“It raises glucose levels and insulin concentrations in the blood, which may increase appetite and lead to obesity, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” explains Anderson, in a released statement.

The American Heart Association currently recommends that added sugar from all sources be limited to no more than 100 calories a day (about 6 teaspoons) for women and to 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons) a day for men.

One 12-ounce can of regular soda typically contains about 130 calories (about 8 teaspoons) — and no nutrition.

FMI: The Journal of the American Heart Association is an open-access journal, so you can read the full study online.