Courtney Nelson

Courtney Nelson of Billings doesn't go far from her water bottle now that she has quit drinking soda pop. Courtney knows that soda is not good for her and has replaced her habit of drinking it with drinking water.

When it comes to diet soda and its possible side effects, drinkers seem to fall into two categories: believers and skeptics.

Meridian Metcalf of Billings is in the “believers” column.

“The artificial sugar in pop causes brain problems,” Metcalf said. “My grandfather died due to too much diet pop.”

He suffered from diabetes and drank at least eight cans of diet soda a day, Metcalf said, in addition to about 32 ounces of tea containing artificial sweetener. His doctor, according to Metcalf, told her grandfather that his tremendous intake of artificial sweeteners wreaked havoc with his insulin levels.

Hot debate

The debate has been refueled by a study suggesting diet soda was linked to an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. The Northern Manhattan Study found that people who drank diet soda every day had a 61 percent higher risk of vascular events, including stroke and heart attack than those who abstained.

The study, which included 2,564 people, was conducted at the Neurological Institute of Columbia University Division of Stroke and Critical Care, and was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Participants averaged 69 years of age and completed food surveys that included questions about the type of soda they drank and how often. During the average nine-year follow-up, at least 559 vascular events occurred, including strokes caused by hemorrhage and those caused by clots, known as ischemic strokes.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer, in the United States. More than 137,000 people a year die from stroke, according to the American Stroke Association.

Scientists found that high salt intake was linked to a dramatically increased risk of ischemic strokes, in which a blood vessel blockage cuts off blood flow to the brain. In the study, people who consumed more than 4,000 milligrams of sodium per day had more than double the risk of stroke compared to those consuming less than 1,500 milligrams per day.

A 12-ounce can of Diet Pepsi, for example, has 35 milligrams of sodium. Diet Coke has 40 milligrams.

Only 12 percent of subjects in the study met the American Heart Association's recommendation to consume less than 1,500 milligrams a day. Average intake was 3,031 milligrams.

“The take-home message is that high sodium intake is a risk factor for ischemic stroke among people with hypertension as well as among those without hypertension, underscoring the importance of limiting consumption of high sodium foods for stroke prevention, said Hannah Gardener, lead author of the study.

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Raised on soda

Courtney Nelson, 25, of Billings, said she was raised on both regular and diet soda. There was a time she was drinking up to three cans per day, but quit. She fell off the wagon, craving the carbonation, and then quit again, saying there is “nothing beneficial” about it.

“Weight, sleeping problems, and anxiety have always been issues for me,” Nelson said. “I feel that diet soda and regular soda have a negative impact on all of these problems. I'm already starting to notice that I'm sleeping better and feeling more calm.”

In the “skeptics” column you will find Kristi Monson of Billings and Carol Wilson Reimann of Shepherd, among others.

Monson dismissed the study as “small” and “preliminary.” She criticized the the study for not taking into account such factors as weight, family history, cholesterol levels, and diet.

“I wouldn't jump to any conclusions,” Monson said.

Reimann said she is as concerned about the harmful effects of drinking water as she is about diet soda. Reimann said she was in Minneapolis in December 2007 when her mother-in-law passed away. Reimann said the hospice person directed Reimann to pour a bottle of morphine down the drain. She refused. Eventually, it was poured over some items in the trash so that it wouldn't go into the water system, Reimann said.

“So much goes into our city water,” Reimann said. “And, people who have wells that are less than 100 feet deep could be drinking the ditch water, or their neighbor's septic water.”

Joyce Bishop Viggiano, formerly of Glendive, is also a skeptic.

“They will always come up with something that you eat or drink that is going to cause something,” Viggiano said.

This is not the first study of its kind. Similar research has found that those who drank more than one soft drink per day, whether it was diet or regular, were more likely than those who drank no soda at all to have metabolic syndrome, a cluster of factors including high blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, low levels of good cholesterol, high fasting blood sugar and large waists. Metabolic syndrome increases the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

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Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.