This Super-Popular Grocery Item Could Raise Your Heart Disease Risk by 20%, According to New Research—Here's What Cardiologists Say

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Minimizing sugar intake is standard, first-line advice doctors give to reduce heart disease risk. However, new research suggests that even artificially sweetened drinks may increase a person's chances of developing heart disease.

The study, published in the American Heart Association (AHA) journal Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology at the beginning of March, found that drinking artificially sweetened beverages could increase the risk of developing atrial fibrillation (AFib for short). An irregular heartbeat is a hallmark of the condition, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.

While the news may not be the sweetest thing you've heard today, especially if you enjoy artificially sweetened beverages, cardiologists say studies like this one are important.

"Research on how diet affects the heart can help guide us to choose foods that will help rather than harm our hearts," explains Dr. Majid Basit, MD, a cardiologist with Memorial Hermann in Houston.

What's the deal with artificial sweeteners and heart health? Cardiologists spill what we need to know and offer advice for heart-healthy beverages.

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What Are Artificial Sweeteners, Anyway?

Before we get into the new study, having a primer on what artificial sweeteners are and common ones to spot on ingredient lists might be helpful. That way, you can make the most informed choices possible. "Artificial sweeteners, also known as sugar substitutes, are food additives that mimic the sweetness of sugar but contain few or no calories," explains Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, MD, a board-certified interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center. "Some examples of artificial sweeteners that you might see on an ingredient list are aspartame, saccharin and sucralose."

They also reduce the possibility of blood sugar spikes. "They are especially important in people with diabetes who are not able to adequately regulate their blood sugar level," Dr. Basit adds. Frustratingly, diabetes can increase a person's odds of developing heart disease, according to the CDC.

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About the Study

To perform the study, researchers looked at data from more than 200,000 adults who didn't have AFib when they joined the giant medical database called "UK Biobank" between 2006 and 2010. They monitored the participants for about 10 years, and precisely 9,362 of them had AFib by the end of it.

There's more. Here are a few other key findings:

  • People who drank two or more liters of artificially sweetened beverages weekly had 20% greater odds of developing AFib than their peers who didn't.

  • Those who consumed similar amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages? They had a 10% higher risk of an AFib diagnosis.

  • Sipping one liter or less of unsweetened juice, like OJ, was linked to an 8% lower risk of developing AFib.

Head spinning? Here's the TL;DR: "The study highlights the larger problem of how a poor diet that includes sugar-sweetened or artificially sweetened drinks can lead to future heart problems," Dr. Basit says.

Related: Here's What Happens to Your Body if You Drink Diet Coke Every Day

Still, there are some caveats.

"As with all observational studies, causality cannot be directly determined," Dr. Chen explains. "The study cannot say that consumption of those beverages causes atrial fibrillation. It is possible that there are other confounding factors in patients who drink sweetened beverages that also lead to increased atrial fibrillation risk."

Why might artificially sweetened drinks increase AFib odds? That's also TBD. "It is unclear how artificially sweetened beverages increase the risk of atrial fibrillation," Dr. Chen says. "One possibility is that changes in blood sugar levels or perhaps the artificial sweetener compounds themselves affect inflammation in blood vessels, which then causes scarring or other changes in the heart that could affect someone's risk of atrial fibrillation."

Related: When Should You See a Doctor About Heart Palpitations? Cardiologists Explain

Tips for Choosing Heart-Healthy Drinks

We talk a lot about the types of food to consume to improve heart health, like leafy green veggies and omega-3s. But what you drink matters, too—and artificially sweetened beverages aren't entirely off the menu if you like them.

"When consuming beverages with sugar or sugar substitutes, moderation is the key," Dr. Basit says. "One or two small 8-ounce glasses a day should be the limit."

When you sip the beverages may also help you stick to this recommendation (and even boost energy levels). "Try to have the beverages outside of mealtimes," Dr. Basit says. "Sugar or sugar substitutes can affect how the body processes fat. Meals with these drinks can lead to lethargy and fat deposition."

Related: So Long, Added Sugar! Sip on These 16 Healthy Sodas and Soda Alternatives Instead

Still, your best bet is to consume beverages that are low in sugar or have no sugar at all. "In general, it is healthier to choose drinks that are lower in sugar—less than 5 grams per serving," Dr. Chen says. "Some heart-healthy beverages can include plain water, sparkling water, low-fat or skim milk or alternative milks."

Dr. Chen says some milk alternatives to consider include soy, almond, rice or oat milk (just prioritize unsweetened kinds). Let's be honest: Water can be a bit boring. It doesn't have to be that way, though. "For those who want to liven up the flavor of plain water, [one] easy [way] to add flavor [is] to add fresh ingredients."

Think slices of orange, lemon and lime. Cucumbers can taste refreshing, and berries like strawberries and raspberries add some natural sweetness.

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