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Over the years, controversial studies have found evidence that eating too much sugar may raise your risk of obesity and some chronic diseases. Now research suggests drinking too many sugary beverages could do more than that—it might shorten your life.

Searching for sugar’s effects

Researchers followed nearly 18,000 people over the age of 45 for about six years to learn whether sugar was linked to lifespan. Each person reported what he or she ate and drank. None were known to have heart disease or type 2 diabetes at the beginning of the study.

“There were two parts of this question we wanted to understand,” said study author Jean Welsh, PhD, MPH, and an assistant professor at Emory University. “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?”

Understanding the findings

Eating sugary foods didn’t raise the risk of death, but sugary beverages were a different story. People who usually drank the most—24 ounces a day or more—had twice the risk of dying from coronary heart disease compared to people who drank little or none.

What’s more, sugary beverages were also linked to a greater risk of death from all other causes.

The drinks included sugar-sweetened soda and fruit drinks, as well as fruit juice that has natural sugars.

Why didn’t sugary foods cause the same effect as drinks? Researchers say it may be because the body processes them in different ways.

“We believe this study adds strong data to what already exists highlighting the importance of minimizing sugary beverages in our diet,” said Welsh.

This kind of research isn’t able to prove cause and effect; it can only reveal a link or trend. The study was presented at an American Heart Association meeting. Such work is usually considered preliminary until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Thirst-quenching ideas

If you want to cut down on sugar-sweetened drinks, here are some refreshing alternatives:

• Plain water—nothing is better for you
• Sparkling flavored water
• Diet soda
• Sugar-free punch such as Crystal Light
• Tea flavored with skim milk or lemon (avoid bottled iced teas that have added sugar)
• Coffee, black or with a little skim milk (beware of fancy coffee drinks with added sugar)

Photo courtesy of American Heart Association

What’s your favorite sugar-free drink? Add a comment below.