New Research: Drinking This May Increase Heart Risk by 50%

You've heard you can't exercise away a bad diet. A new study examined a particular aspect of diet and found a telling theme, even among the fit.

When you’re creating some healthy structure in your diet, it’s natural to dedicate your focus to planning out meals and snacks. Turns out, that afternoon mocha or soda to lift your energy and mood might have a more significant impact on your health than even just a few mischievous calories.

That’s according to a new study published January 5, 2024, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigating the strongly demonstrated connection between heart disease incidence and added sugar from sweetened drinks. In fact, sugar-sweetened beverages remain the largest source of calories Americans consume—despite recommendations to reduce consumption, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It’s essential, experts say, to consider not only soda but also fruit drinks with “added sugar” on the label, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened waters, and any sugary coffee or sweetened coffee drinks when assessing daily intake.

So for this study, researchers at Harvard University, Universite Laval in Quebec, and the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital set out to see whether moderate exercise could offset the adverse effects of consuming several sugary beverages, and whether physical activity played a role.

More than 100,000 women and men were assessed over a period of 30 years for their dietary choices with a focus on their beverage preferences, consumption frequency, and activity levels. They were then monitored for cardiovascular disease diagnoses and related events, such as heart attacks and strokes.

The researchers found that while regular exercise can reduce the overall risk of heart disease and stroke, it cannot fully protect the heart from a diet high in sugar—although it does offer some benefits.

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Overall, inactivity and high sugar intake from beverages increased cardiovascular risk by a substantial 47%. Even those who consumed two or more sugary beverages daily and met the recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity per week still saw a 21% increased risk of disease compared to those who rarely or never consumed sugary beverages.

Even vigorous exercise did not fully counteract these effects, with the authors noting that increased cardiovascular risk was “still observed even in participants who met physical activity recommendations and were in the top 25% of physical activity levels.” Adding one sugar-sweetened beverage per day was associated with about an 18% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, regardless of exercise frequency.

For those who prefer diet soda or sugar-free sweeteners, the associations with heart disease still existed but were not as strong. While a slight 3% higher risk of cardiovascular disease and a 5% higher risk of stroke were noted, these numbers may warrant further study. The researchers suggest that individuals with serious health problems might have switched to diet soda, potentially affecting the results. Furthermore, exercise did not seem to have a significant effect on how artificially sweetened beverages affected participants.

However, the researchers emphasize that though they didn’t find a connection, artificially sweetened beverages have “been associated with obesity, chronic disease incidence, and even all-cause and cardiovascular disease-specific mortality.” Speak with your doctor—but it’s advisable to limit the consumption of these beverages in your diet as well.

In conclusion, the researchers stated: “Findings provide evidence against the argument that physical activity could counterbalance the potential health risk induced by SSB (sugar-sweetened beverages) or ASB (artificially sweetened beverages) intake.” Furthermore, the results “support current recommendations to limit the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, even for physically active individuals.”

So how much sugar in a day is OK? The CDC currently recommends limiting all sources of added sugar to less than 10% of your total daily calories, which is approximately 200 calories from sugar, or around 10 teaspoons for most Americans. That’s still significant, but just takes some understanding and mindfulness.

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Meaghan Cameron, MS
Meaghan has more than 15 years of experience in writing and editing food, travel, fitness, sports, and lifestyle material. Her professional journey began at Reader's Digest, where she honed her skills and developed a passion for creating engaging content. Throughout her career, she has contributed her expertise to renowned platforms such as Food Network, Martha Stewart, Outside Television, and Eat This, Not That! Additionally, Meaghan has valuable experience in radio and video production. Before entering the world of content creation, Meaghan spent more than a decade working in the restaurant industry. This hands-on experience has provided her with insider knowledge and secrets about the workings of the industry. Meaghan holds a bachelor's degree in English from the State University of New York (SUNY) Purchase and a master's degree in publishing from Pace University.