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Posted at 2:45 PM ET, 02/10/2011

Is diet soda just die with a T? Not so fast.

By Alexandra Petri


A new study says that drinking diet soda leads to strokes.

No Sprite, Sherlock!

You might be startled to learn this, America, but there is a 100 percent correlation between drinking diet soda and eventually dying. Also between working out and dying. In fact, people who work out die at exactly the same rate as people who don't, although they tend to look less like Jabba the Hutt before they go.

There is also a correlation between breathing and dying. Or between talking to me -- even once -- on the subway and dying.

So you have to live life as best you can. You can't always have what you want all the time. There is no magical "Get Out of Soda Free" card. If there were, Kirstie Alley would not look like that. It's not like you can drink it and your body responds by saying, "Whoa, what is this? I know it's not soda. Must be a vitamin-rich fruit beverage! I'm going to give you bonus longevity points!"

Just because something starts with the word "Diet" doesn't mean you can eat ten of it. A good friend of mine used to do that. She would buy large boxes of diet ice cream, which seems like a contradiction in terms, and have someone lower them into her mouth with a forklift. As a consequence, people kept mistaking her for a rare land-based whale.

It's like people discovering that Nicorette patches are more deadly than not smoking. Look, they might be less deadly than smoking. But they're not less deadly than eating well, working out, getting lots of sleep, and not ever having smoked.

Based on the wildly variable conditions of the study -- it's too strong to call it anecdotal science, but barely -- it's hard to conclude anything. What the study says is, "We called two thousand New Yorkers at random, and some of them said they were daily soda drinkers, and then in the course of the next nine years some of the soda drinkers suffered strokes." Correlation? Sure. But causation?

This is like the study that said drinking a glass of red wine every day decreased your risk of heart disease. Well, no. The wine itself didn't do the trick, or you could drink an entire box of Charles Shaw and be cured of all your ills. But being the kind of person who would drink a glass of red wine every day -- that was what mattered.

Even if this study weren't so flawed in other ways -- it's self-reported and doesn't take weight gain into account, meaning that there is the slight but non-negligible possibility that some of the people in the study ate entire hams daily and washed them down with diet soda -- this isn't about the diet soda. It's about being the kind of person who drinks diet soda.

You know the one I mean. "I'll have an ice cream sundae, a bucket of chicken wings, an extra-large fries -- and a diet coke, please."

And, besides, the comparison is to people who don't drink soda. I could have told you that.

Hey, here's a person who drinks a soda that contains no sugar! Here's someone who doesn't drink soda at all! Who do you think might suffer a stroke first, all else being equal? (Which, for the purposes of the study, all else wasn't.)

Look, we never said diet soda was perfect. Diet, as Garfield says, is just die with a T. But for now, until they come out with a more convincing study, the T is what matters.

By Alexandra Petri  | February 10, 2011; 2:45 PM ET
Categories:  Bad Advice, Big Deals, Epic Failures, Petri  | Tags:  America, diet soda, law of the jungle  
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The increased likelihood of vascular events remained even after Gardener and her colleagues accounted for risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Pointing the finger more squarely at diet drinks, the researchers found no increased risk among people who drank regular soda.

Posted by: Will23 | February 10, 2011 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Regular consumption of artificial sweeteners by pregnant women may increase their risk of premature birth, according to a study funded by the European Union and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Researchers interviewed almost 60,000 pregnant Danish women about their soft-drink consumption, then compared these data with the results of the women's births. They found that drinking one can of diet soda per day increased her risk of giving birth prematurely by 38 percent compared with women who never drank diet soda. Drinking four or more of the beverages per day increased the risk of preterm birth by 78 percent. A preterm birth is defined as taking place before the 38th week of pregnancy.

Researchers suggested that exposure to methanol, which is found in aspartame, may play a part in bringing forward the birth, since methanol is a known nerve toxin.

Posted by: alance | February 11, 2011 12:13 AM | Report abuse

The research for the study in question was mainly with individuals around 69 years old, but perhaps the same would apply to younger participants. I don't believe so however because while soda and even diet soda has been part of our culture for decades -there has been a dramatic rise in strokes in CHILDREN from 5 years old up to adults aged 44 years old in about the past decade and in the same time period actually a decrease in strokes in the older population. So while I don't encourage or want to defend junk food nation -clearly we can't blame something that has been around for half a century or more as our society was obese a decade ago and according to JAMA not much different today in numbers. We should examine new variables. I wrote a blog on this at and I believe we need to examine energy drinks as I find their introduction into the US in 1997 and the almost 50% rise in strokes in younger individuals in the past decade or so, too coincidental for comfort. Besides -research has already linked them to strokes. While it's important to be concerned about senior's diet soda intake -I believe that the focus should at least be as well on what is going on with our children! A rise in strokes in children and barely a peep about it?!

Posted by: lisageng | February 11, 2011 8:50 AM | Report abuse

You make important points but you also miss the most important one. Kids are drinking diet soda like it is water. Well, this study shows, at the very least, that it ain't H2O. The solution is: the bottles must be pasted with a clear label that IT MAY BE UNSAFE TO DRINK THIS.

Posted by: JAGGULATI | February 11, 2011 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Correlation? Sure. But causation?


Thank you for slapping all of the knee-jerk pundits in the face.

Anyone with 1/2 a brain can play the "A is better than B" game. Sure, drinking water is better for you than diet soda. And yes, eating "diet" ice cream by the gallon probably isn't a good idea.

Common sense is the best diet in the world. (it's just kinda hard to stay disciplined)

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | February 11, 2011 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I drink Diet Coke because I don't really like the taste of sugared drinks. It has little, if nothing to do with the "diet" and everything to do with preference.

Posted by: trident420 | February 11, 2011 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I've drunk vast amounts of diet soda daily for about thirty years, and I'm just fine. Maybe all the cigarettes I smoke counteract the evil soda?

(Whistling merrily past the graveyard...)

Posted by: bobsewell | February 11, 2011 12:43 PM | Report abuse

My favorite answer to "How was your weekend?" is "Two days closer to death."

Posted by: jimward21 | February 11, 2011 5:30 PM | Report abuse

You make a 2 great points here:

1. Correlation is not causation.

2. Yippee, we're all gonna die!

I would like to add a 3rd:

3. The purpose of most of these studies is for someone to make more money. Thus, these kinds of studies fall under a branch of science known as Bovine Scatology.

The real question is, for each diet soda I drink, how much longer (or shorter) will I live?

This has been calculated for cigarettes. Each time you smoke a cigarette, you shorten your expected life by 11 MINUTES.

The correlation between high cholesterol and heart attacks has been established. However, lower cholesterol increases other causes of death, so lowering your cholesterol probably won't make you live longer. And after age 70, lower cholesterol is associated with INCREASED overall mortality.

But still, we spend billions on cholesterol lowering drugs for old people when it actually makes them die sooner. We could save Medicare from future bankruptcy by stopping this cholesterol nonsense, and have a lot left over to lower taxes on the wealthy.

But getting back to diet soda... the real cause of any possible increase in strokes is probably caffeine, not artificial sweeteners like the sugar companies want you to believe. Caffeine constricts arteries in the brain, and smaller arteries are more likely to create clots. This study showed an increase in strokes right after drinking coffee:

Posted by: divtune | February 14, 2011 8:05 PM | Report abuse

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