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I do what I can to stay healthy: I exercise three or four times a week, and make salads, nuts, seeds and grains a part of my daily diet. But there’s one weakness I haven’t been able to shake: drinking soda. I love Coke in all its effervescent, syrupy goodness. When my habit escalated to two liters a day, I gave it up cold turkey. But it slowly has made its way back into my life. Every time I order take-out, which is several times a week, I always ask for a can of Coke. Though I like to tell myself that a cola most days of the week is no big thing, a new study has me thinking otherwise.
According to new research in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, sugary drinks like soda are linked to high blood pressure, but cutting your intake can help bring your numbers down. By eliminating just 10 grams of sugar—two and a half teaspoons—you can lower your blood pressure. To put that in perspective, there are eight teaspoons of added sugar in a 12-ounce can of soda. If you put down the can after drinking half, you’re subtracting more than 10 grams of sugar. (Diet sodas are okay: The researchers found that caffeine and diet drinks had no impact on blood pressure, though other sources of dietary sugar do.)
Now it’s not that I thought cola was a health drink before this. Previous studies have already linked the sugar-sweetened drink to obesity and type 2 diabetes. But, since I have no real family history of those conditions, I chose to play a little Russian roulette with my soda habit. Unfortunately, as I have mentioned before, my family tree is rife with heart disease. And because high blood pressure can cause damage the heart and arteries, leading to heart attack, heart failure, atherosclerosis and stroke, I’m definitely taking the news to heart, so to speak.
The study followed 810 adults between the ages of 25 and 79 with pre-hypertension (120/80 to 139/89) and Stage I high blood pressure (140/90 to 159/99) for 18 months. At the beginning of the study, the average consumption of sugary beverages, including soda, fruit drinks and lemonade, was 10.5 ounces a day. When researchers cut their intake in half, participants’ systolic blood pressure (the top number) dropped by 1.8 points, and their diastolic fell by 1.1. According to the study, getting your systolic down by three points can reduce your risk of death after stroke by eight percent, and reduce the risk of death from heart disease by five percent.
Maybe those numbers don’t seem like much, but considering the fact that the average American drinks 28 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverages a day, switching to unsweetened drinks could have a drastic impact. According to the American Heart Association, 35 percent of adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure–and another 29 percent have pre-hypertension. That leaves just over one-third of us with healthy blood pressure levels! No wonder public health initiatives are trying to cut salt (which has already been shown to raise blood pressure) out of our diets.
The question that this study’s researchers are left with is could the sugar in our diets be just as much to blame as salt for our skyrocketing blood pressure levels? Though we don’t know the answer to that yet, we do know that cutting back on soda and sweetened beverages may be one manageable way to reduce our sugar intake and lower our risk of heart disease and stroke. If that means ordering a minimally sweetened iced tea with my takeout instead of a Coke, it might be hard for me to do, but I think it’s worth it.