There's even more evidence that drinking lots of soda and sugar-filled coffee could lead to an early death

  • A long-term study of more than 118,000 men and women suggests that the more sugar people drink, the more likely they are to die from several things, especially from heart trouble.
  • The study suggests that artificial sweeteners may also be unhealthy when consumed in big doses every day.
  • This might be especially true for women, the study found.

Scientists have found even more evidence that it’s time to ditch the soda, put down the lemonade, and drop the sugary coffee. These sweet drinks taste good, but they may also set drinkers up for an early death.

A 34-year study of more than 118,000 men and women across the US released Monday in the journal Circulation suggests that people who drink more sugar-sweetened beverages are more likely to die from all sorts of things, especially from heart problems and cancers, and that diet soda and sugar substitutes may not be much better when consumed in large doses.

Scientists have long known that sugary drinks can contribute to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and strokes, but the latest evidence that these drinks can be deadly is the most damning so far.

The findings related to cancer deaths were especially surprising to the study’s lead author, Vasanti Malik, a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition in the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

“It makes sense,” she told Business Insider. “When we looked at the different types of cancers, that association was driven by breast and colon cancer, which are diet/obesity-related cancers.”

Malik’s study suggests that people trying to cut back on sugary drinks could do well to switch to diet options, at least temporarily.

“Diet soda may be used to help frequent consumers of sugary drinks cut back their consumption, but water is the best and healthiest choice,” she said in a press release.

The authors of this study found that drinking four or more artificially sweetened beverages a day also significantly upped the risk of death for women, though they couldn’t say the same for men. The researchers think the link between diet drinks and an increased risk of death may be because people who are already overweight drink more of them.

“Women with higher diet-beverage consumption tended to be heavier and have hypertension,” or high blood pressure, Malik said.

A double-whammy health threat from sugar and lack of exercise

It’s unwelcome news because people who drink more sugar-sweetened beverages are also likelier to be less physically active, leading to a kind of double-whammy health threat.

Following participants in two long-term studies for 34 years, researchers noticed that people who drank sugar-sweetened beverages were more likely to die from several things – and the more sugar, the higher the risk of death.

Compared with people who had one sugary beverage a month (not including fruit juice), women who drank more than 24 ounces of syrupy beverages every day had a 63% higher risk of death, while men upped their risk by 29%. (It may be the case that women underreport calories more often than men, which would skew the numbers this way, Malik said.)

There are some caveats. Because this study was observational, and scientists didn’t require people to sit around in a lab for decades while they collected data, we can’t be sure that there’s a causal link between earlier death and sugary drinks. It could be that people who drink more sugar die younger because of other less healthy things they’re doing, like consuming more calories or eating more red meat and fewer vegetables.

But even when the researchers controlled for factors like diet, physical activity, body mass index, and age, they still found that people who drank more sugar-sweetened beverages were more likely to die earlier.

“You just end up consuming more calories per day, and it leads to weight gain over time,” Malik said.

Cancer also loves sugar

Other evidence is mounting that sweets (like soda and sweet coffees) that contribute to obesity may directly fuel dangerous cancers. A study in mice recently released in the journal Science found that high fructose corn syrup, a common sweetening ingredient in many sugary drinks, can fuel colon cancer tumour growth – essentially feeding tumours – at least in mice.

This backs up what scientists have been hypothesizing for years:sugar may stimulate cancerous tumours to grow more quickly and more aggressively. Further studies are needed to know if these cancer mechanisms work the same way in humans as they do in lab animals and cells.

The good news is that cutting back even a little bit on sugar can help. Instead of adding sugar to your coffee or downing a soda, try drinking coffee with cream and cinnamon or sprucing up your seltzer with a little lemon.

Update: This story was originally published on March 18, 2019 and has been updated with more research on corn syrup.

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