Sometimes simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference when it comes to health. A study presented at an American Heart Association scientific meeting has found a connection between consuming large amounts of sugary beverages and death from heart disease and other causes.

Adults over the age of 45 were selected from a database of participants from the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study. In the end, the sample size of the study was 17,930 people without a history of heart disease or type 2 diabetes. The participants were given a questionnaire that asked them how often they ate sugary foods or drank sugary drinks. On average, the participants were followed for 7 years and their death record was used to determine the cause of death. A total of 279 heart-related deaths and 1465 all-cause deaths occurred over the follow-up, according to Jean Welsh, Ph.D., M.P.H., study author, assistant professor at Emory University and a research director with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

There is a vast array of sugary drinks available. Image credits: Marlith.

The researchers corrected for possible confounding factors such as income, education, background, and heart disease risk factors. There was no increased risk of death associated with the consumption of sugary foods. However, for those in the top 25% of sugary drink consumers, drinking at least 24 ounces per day, had twice the risk of death from heart disease than the lowest 25% of participants who drank less than 1 ounce of sugary beverages per day. The difference found between sugary food and drinks could be due to the different ways that the two are processed in the body.

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“There were two parts of this question we wanted to understand,” said Jean Welsh. “Do added sugars increase risk of death from heart disease or other causes, and, if so, is there a difference in risk between sugar-sweetened beverages and sugary foods? We believe this study adds strong data to what already exists highlighting the importance of minimizing sugary beverages in our diet.”

Sugary drinks are already known to be negative from a weight-loss point of view because they contain empty calories. They often have several hundred calories but few other nutrients—the lack of fiber or protein also keeps you from feeling full after drinking them. Even fruit juice, which may seem healthier, is sugar without much else. The difference between drinks and food in the study’s results could be attributed to the fact that the drinks introduce mostly sugars into the bloodstream to be metabolized, while sugary food usually also has fats or proteins, which slow down metabolism.

“Our results suggest that adults may be able to reduce their risk of heart disease by reducing their consumption of sugary beverage intake (soft drinks, fruit juices and drinks). While multiple previous studies have shown a link between high sugary beverage consumption and heart disease risk factors such as obesity and high blood pressure, few have examined how this consumption may be affecting mortality risk. While we did not see the same increase in heart disease mortality risk with higher consumption of sugary foods, more research is needed to understand how risk might vary by specific food types,” concluded Welsh to ZME Science.

It is worth noting that this study is only looking at trends in populations. It is not possible to do a long-term cause-and-effect study like this due to practical and ethical reasons. You would have to make a group of people drink more sugary drinks and see how they died, and control for any other factors that might cause differences between groups, like lifestyle. The advantage of a study like the one here is that it can identify larger trends over a large group of people, however, it is hard to say that the cause of death is necessarily linked to the consumption of sugary drinks. It is necessary, therefore, to have a large sample size to build up a strong case.

The most important thing is to be aware as an individual. To lead a healthy lifestyle, it is good to reduce sugar intake, and avoiding sugary beverages is an easy way to do so.

Reference: American Heart Association Meeting Report – Poster Presentation P235 – Session P02
Sugar-Sweetened Beverage and Food Intake and Mortality Risk Among U.S. Adults
Authors: Lindsay Collin, Emory Univ, Atlanta, GA; Monika Safford, Cornell Univ, New York, NY; Viola Vaccarino, Jean A Welsh, Emory Univ, Atlanta, GA