What Do Diet Soda and Butter Have in Common?

The answer can be summarized in one word: moderation.

You may have been struck by the amount of recent press generated by two studies — one on diet soda (the researchers say it may increase the risk of heart disease in postmenopausal women) and the other on saturated fat (it doesn’t increase the risk of heart disease, according to the study). If you were to take the studies at face value, you’d likely give up all diet soda and start eating butter and maybe more red meat, too. But not so fast.

Let’s jump quickly to the bottom line: More research is needed in both areas, as the researchers behind both of these studies admit.

On the South Beach Diet we have always encouraged moderation when it comes to your food choices. By the time your reach Phase 3, and have achieved your weight loss goal, no food is off-limits, including butter, if you choose to enjoy a little of it from time to time. And diet soda, also in moderation, is an option on all Phases. But keep in mind that it’s just that, an option. There are certainly many other drinks you can choose instead, water being the healthiest of all, of course.

Look at the Big Picture
As a preventive cardiologist, I am always interested in any new nutritional science that relates to heart health, but I always have to look at the bigger picture too. In the case of the study on diet soda, which was presented at the annual scientific sessions of the American College of Cardiology this past weekend (but is not yet published and may never be), the results are speculative and need corroboration. The study showed that postmenopausal women (average age 62.8) with no history of cardiovascular disease who drank two or more 12-ounce diet drinks a day were slightly more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular problems, or suffer death from any cause, than those who rarely or never consumed diet drinks.

While this may sound scary, the lead study author himself has said publicly that it’s too soon to tell people to change their behavior. That’s because the women who drank the most diet drinks were also more likely to smoke, to be overweight, to have diabetes, and to have high blood pressure, all independent risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
As far as the study on saturated fat goes, I also urge a watch and wait approach before you run out and load up your grocery cart with butter, full-fat cheese, marbled steak, and other foods high in saturated fat. This study, which was published this March in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is a meta-analysis, in other word, a compilation of many studies that have come before. It suggests that current evidence does not clearly support cardiology guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats. In other words, the authors argue, the effects of saturated fat on blood cholesterol are weak and transient. Already aspects of this study have proven controversial.
As far as I’m concerned, the real question is not whether saturated fat is good or bad but whether the overall quality of your diet is good or bad. It’s important to keep in mind that looking at individual fats, or other food groups, in isolation (as this meta-analysis did) can be misleading, often because when people cut down on fats they tend to eat more carbohydrates, and refined carbohydrates in particular, which can also be bad for cardiovascular health.
Stick with Our South Beach Diet Eating Principles
New studies like these will come and go, and I will always find them interesting, but the healthy eating principles of the South Beach Diet continue to remain the same. Eat a wide variety of quality foods — good unsaturated fats, nutrient- and fiber-dense carbohydrates, and lean protein — as part of a wholesome, balanced eating plan.

Sure you can have a diet soda now and then, or even a pat of butter (preferably once you’ve reached a healthy weight). But as with so many things in life: Just don’t overdo it.

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Jennifer K.

Jennifer K. Lost 110 lbs with The South Beach Diet!

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