Obesity

Heartstopping Headlines About Diet Drinks

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A new analysis of data from the Framingham Heart Study, published in the journal Circulation, finds that people who drink soda every day are especially prone to "metabolic syndrome," a condition that includes high blood sugar, elevated triglycerides, extra abdominal fat, and low levels of HDL cholesterol (the "good" kind). Metabolic syndrome, in turn, is associated with a 100 percent increase in the risk of heart attack or stroke. But here's the weird thing about the study: It made hardly any difference whether the subjects drank regular or diet soda. The fact that neither the calories nor the high-fructose corn syrup mattered suggests that soda drinking is a proxy for other behaviors (or characteristics) that contribute to metabolic syndrome.

The researchers say the association between soda consumption and metabolic syndrome remained significant after they "adjusted for saturated fat and trans fat intake, dietary fiber consumption, smoking, and physical activity." But they concede "it is conceivable…that there may be residual confounding caused by lifestyle factors not adjusted for in the present analyses." At least as important, they do not suggest a plausible biological reason why drinking bubbly water containing a bit of flavor and artificial sweetener would affect blood sugar, triglycerides, cholesterol, and waistlines. The study nonetheless generated predictable headlines suggesting that Diet Coke or Fresca might give you a heart attack:

"Regular Soft Drink Consumption May Increase Heart Attack Risk" (India's Economic Times)

"Diet Sodas Are Bad for Your Health" (Times of India)

"Heart Risk of Diet Soda Found Equal" (Chicago Tribune)

"Diet or Regular, Soft Drinks Hurt Your Heart" (HeartZine)

"Diet Drinkers Also Face Risks" (Cincinati Enquirer)

"Study: Soda Increases Risk of Heart Disease" (CBS 13)

"No Safe Diet Haven" (Globe and Mail)

"Daily Soft Drink Hikes Risk for Heart Disease, Study Finds" (San Francisco Chronicle)

And so on.

Several news organizations, including Bloomberg and ABC News, did a better job of accurately reporting the study's findings and the controversy over their meaning. And to its credit, the American Heart Association, which publishes Circulation, issued a statement noting that the study "does not show that soft drinks cause risk factors for heart disease." It adds: "Diet soda can be a good option to replace caloric beverages that do not contain important vitamins and minerals. The American Heart Association supports dietary patterns that include low-calorie beverages like water, diet soft drinks, and fat-free or low-fat milk as better choices than full calorie soft drinks." If anything, the Circulation study should be welcomed by the soft drink industry, since it casts doubt on the claim that the extra calories (or the HFCS) in regular soda play a special role in obesity.

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  1. I think the explanation for the observation that diet soda drinkers are fat is absurdly obvious: many people switch to diet because they are gaining weight or become diabetic.

    Sullum is right. Despite the headlines, this study does nothing but show a correlation, and the “diet soda makes you fat” causation clearly cannot be taken from this study. Indeed, the causation almost certainly runs in the opposite direction.

  2. Regular and diet sodas both contain dihydrogen monoxide which is known to be toxic in large quantities. I only drink organic spring water which is free of such industrial chemicals.

  3. Think you left “percent” out of “… associated with a 100 increase… “. At least I hope it’s “percent” and not “-fold”.

  4. Max – of course, only locally produced, free range organic spring water.

    CB

  5. Cracker’s Boy: Max – of course, only locally produced, free range organic spring water.

    Thats the greatest ever! Well done CB!

  6. Yeah, I hear that Dihydrogen Monoxide can get into your lungs and practically drown you.

    There ought to be a law banning this scourge…

  7. Hmmm…it’s tough to see what the confounding variables would be after they “adjusted for saturated fat and trans fat intake, dietary fiber consumption, smoking, and physical activity.”.

    The one thing I don’t see is caffeine–maybe long term caffeine consumption does bad things? I’d be interested to see coffee drinkers similarly evaluated.

    Still, I’m not rushing to supplant my Coke Zero/Diet Coke Mit Splenda? habit, but this might be an argument to cut back a little.

  8. Oh, I also heard that Dihydrogen Monoxide can be found in all kinds of toxic products:

    Window Cleaners
    Antifreeze
    Lite Beer

  9. You can have my Mountain Dew when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

  10. Hey guys – I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I was reading the label on a diet soda the other day, and it contained dihydrogen monoxide! Of course, the damn corporation that made the stuff called it something else, but I knew what it was!

    We need Michael Moore or Spurlock to expose this!

  11. Crap, Max started the thread with that one. I promise – I will read more carefully, I will read more carefully…

  12. Didn’t we just find out recently that it is the sodium benzoate found in these drinks that will kill you?

  13. soda or pop?

  14. gaijin:

    sodi-pop

  15. gaijin,

    coke, of course.

    AS in:
    A: Get me a coke from the fridge.
    B: What kind?
    A: Sprite.

  16. How about a genetic factor that correlates with cravings for soda? Too obvious or too little opportunity for casting judgment?

  17. Well, all carbonated beverages are bad for you in the sense that the carbonic acid in them depleted mineral deposits in your bones….older women esp would be affected by this of course.

    I thought this was fantastic and worth a similar write up
    http://health.yahoo.com/news/177766
    Haha! Obesity is now contagious. CNN had it on yesterday, too. What a crock of shit.

  18. oops, edit that obesity contagious thing….reason was all over that.

  19. I again want to thank the medical research community for validating beer, wine and spirits as beverages of choice.

  20. Jacob Sullum, while a good writer and interesting thinker, suffers from a severe case of confirmation bias.

  21. Every researcher who cannot explain his findings includes a hypothesis that unknown confounding variables might explain them.

    To make that boilerplate speculation the central thesis of this blog post is weak.

  22. Max,

    I heard a rumor that several spring water companies have been putting dihydrogen monoxide in their spring water without labeling it as such. You might want to have a lab check out your brand.

    Also, you should ask your doctor if you can have a blood test done to find the dihydrogen monoxide levels in your blood. Don’t take no for an answer.

  23. Also, you should ask your doctor if you can have a blood test done to find the dihydrogen monoxide levels in your blood.

    Agreed. Dihydrogen Monoxide has been found to me a major component of many poisons and toxic solutions.

  24. Metabolic syndrome, in turn, is associated with a 100 percent increase in the risk of heart attack or stroke.

    And what is the risk of heart attack? The 100% figure is meaningless without any context.

  25. I would gladly substitute 2% milk for my large, daily Mt. Dew intake, but vodka & milk just doesn’t taste good.

  26. Rhywun,

    Add some Kahlua

  27. Add some Kahlua

    Then I would be my mom. She went a Kahlua kick for a few years (even *making her own* once). The stuff makes me gag. But thanks for the input 🙂

  28. I don’t typically pay attention to these kinds of studies, since, as Jacob points out, it’s not really telling us anything. But I am a serious Diet Coke addict – I mean, like a heroin addict addict – I drink about 5 a day – I probably should think about cutting down, shouldn’t I?

  29. “It’s entirely possible we’re not as smart as we think we are, and couldn’t think of any other legitimate factors to account for the correlation.”

    Where I went to grad school, that kind of shit’ll get you tenure.

  30. I again want to thank the medical research community for validating beer, wine and spirits as beverages of choice.

    Here here!

  31. I heard a story that this one guy got tested for DHMO and it turned out that DHMO accounted for over 50% of his blood volume! I can’t imagine what horrible death throes he was going through at the time.

  32. Jacob Sullum, while a good writer and interesting thinker, suffers from a severe case of confirmation bias.

    Are you kidding? The entire libertarian/Reason project is based on confirmation bias. Ever see an article in reason examining market failures?

  33. Markets don’t fail. Governments that regulate them do.

  34. I should add that markets don’t have goals, and, as such, can’t fail (or succeed).

  35. Every researcher who cannot explain his findings includes a hypothesis that unknown confounding variables might explain them.

    Oy. Re-read what Sullum wrote. The point is that so many newspapers reported the results of the study as “soda causes heart disease” when, as even you point out, the researcher couldn’t explain his findings.

  36. Are you kidding? The entire libertarian/Reason project is based on confirmation bias. Ever see an article in reason examining market failures?

    Just off the top of my head I remember an excellent article in Reason about the history of the FDA. It did not shy away from the problem of unscrupulous purveyors of dangerous patent medicines.

  37. I again want to thank the medical research community for validating beer, wine and spirits as beverages of choice.

    Yeah, but what I am going to mix rum with now?

  38. Joshua,

    Try mixing it with confirmation bias. It’ll go right to your head.

  39. Every researcher who cannot explain his findings includes a hypothesis that unknown confounding variables might explain them.

    To make that boilerplate speculation the central thesis of this blog post is weak.

    I liked how he slipped in the tacit admission that trans-fats do cause metabolic syndrome (or at least the researchers seem to think it does).

    I am not the owrld’s biggest “Edward” fan, but his zinger on this thd is good.

  40. Yeah, but what I am going to mix rum with now?

    * 1 cup fresh lime juice
    * 2 cups simple syrup
    * 3 cups amber rum
    * 4 cups orange juice
    * 4 dashes bitters
    * freshly grated nutmeg

    In a pitcher, combine lime juice, simple syrup, rum and orange juice. Add a few dashes of bitters and some grated nutmeg to taste. Serve chilled over ice.

  41. It’s the salt in diet soda that does you in. That and the fact that everybody I know who drinks that stuff drinks 85 cases a week.

    Uh, give me a Double Double with bacon and super size those fries. Oh, and a large Diet Coke.

  42. TWC,
    How about a triple cheeseburger montecristo with a small diet soda?

  43. The researchers didn’t do a good job of separating causality from correlation. Common sense and an understanding of physics should tell you that if you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight, no ifs ands or buts, and that the extra calories in non-diet soda will impede efforts to lose weight.

  44. OK, you’ve touched on something that I feel I’ve never gotten a good explanation of.

    People speak of the human body burning calories as if it were a calorimeter that burns every bit of calories available in the food one eats. But don’t some people just poop out some of the calories they eat unburned?

  45. “People speak of the human body burning calories as if it were a calorimeter that burns every bit of calories available in the food one eats. But don’t some people just poop out some of the calories they eat unburned?”

    Sure. The more food you eat, the less efficient the body is at extracting the available calories. If you’re starving, the body will try to wring out as many calories as possible, while if you’re gorging like a sumo, you can develop diarrhea from the body flushing out partially digested intestinal contents to make room for the incoming food.

    The body makes other adjustments based on whether you’re flushed with calories or starving, such as ratcheting down the metabolism during periods of fasting.

    But, the point is that despite the body reacting to scarcity or wealth of calories, the amount of calories actually absorbed versus the amount burned determines whether you gain or lose weight over time.

  46. Besides that, do your genes influence how much of the calories in the food you eat that you actually burn?

  47. Mike, Yup again. Some people’s bodies (like mine) react to food by ramping up the thermostat, while others (like my wife’s) are more inclined to try to sock it away in body fat.

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