This One Swap Might Help Those With Type 2 Diabetes Increase Longevity by 26%, a New Study Suggests

Swapping one serving of soda with unsweetened coffee, tea, milk or water may reduce risk for early death, according to this new health study.

According to the 2020 to 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we should aim to consume less than 10% of our total daily calories from added sugars. On a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, that works out to about 12 teaspoons (about 48 grams) per day. Since the cardiologists at the American Heart Association (AHA) believe added sugars are so impactful on heart health (and overall health) they set even stricter guidelines and suggest that women aim for fewer than 6 teaspoons and men shoot for 9 teaspoons or fewer of added sugar per day.

Now that you know the goal, we have some not so sweet news: The average American consumes about 17 teaspoons of added sugars per day, according to USDA estimates. This is nearly three times as much as the AHA recommends, and about 50% more than the dietary guidelines' upper limit.

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While you might guess that desserts, candy or sweet cereals might be the main culprits for the excess sugar, the most common source of added sugars in the typical American's diet is actually sugar-sweetened beverages. This category includes soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, cocktails and fruit drinks (that aren't 100% juice), and the CDC reports that these make up about 24% of Americans' collective added sugar consumption.

If you sip on any sweetened beverage, you could inch a lot closer to—or even fall below—that upper added sugar limit if you start shifting your consumption to less-sugary beverage options. But one population in particular might want to consider making the switch sooner rather than later.

According to a new study published April 19, 2023 in the journal The BMJ, among people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, those who drink the most sugar-sweetened beverages may be at a 20% higher risk for early mortality, including from conditions like heart disease. Drinking coffee, tea, water or low-fat milk instead slashed risk for all-cause mortality by 12% to 26%, they found.

Read on to learn more about this new research, plus how to make better beverage choices, whether you have prediabetes, have received a type 2 diabetes diagnosis or simply want to live a long, vital life.

What This Type 2 Diabetes Research Found

To land at this conclusion, a team of researchers from the U.S., Canada and China gathered insights from two long-term cohort studies that aggregate health data from large populations, the Nurses' Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. These ran from the 1980s until 2018. The scientists selected 15,486 people (about 74% of these were women) who had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and asked them to complete diet-related questionnaires every 2 to 4 years for an average of 18 ½ years. These surveys asked the participants what—and how often—they consumed foods and drinks. Anyone who skipped any questionnaires about their total drink consumption were excluded from the study, which left a total of 12,771 people.

By the end of the long follow-up period, 7,638 participants had died, which meant there was nearly a 50-50 split of those who were still living and those who had passed. This allowed the researchers to look at if there were any patterns among drink consumption in either party.

For each serving of sugar-sweetened drink consumed each day, an individual's risk of "all-cause mortality" (death from any cause) rose by 8%. Compared to those who drink none, those who consumed the most sugar-sweetened drinks were at 20% higher risk for early mortality.

If that same person swapped just one serving of a sugar-sweetened drink with a unsweetened beverage, their risk for death dropped significantly, the scientists found.

  • 1 serving of coffee instead of a sweet drink: 26% lower risk for mortality
  • 1 serving of plain water instead of a sweet drink: 23% lower risk for mortality
  • 1 serving of tea instead of a sweet drink: 21% lower risk for mortality
  • 1 serving of low-fat milk instead of a sweet drink: 12% lower risk for mortality

They also found that swapping in artificially-sweetened drinks, such as diet soda, did slightly lower overall risk of death compared to sugar-sweetened drinks. That said, the participants lowered their risk even more when they shifted from the artificially-sweetened option to water, tea or coffee.

While we certainly can't prove that the drink consumption played a large role in the death—this is likely more of a correlation than a causation— "choice of beverage clearly matters," writes Nita G Forouhi, Ph.D., professor and program leader at the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine in England in an accompanying editorial in The BMJ. "Although the evidence is less clear for artificially-sweetened beverages and fruit juice, it is reasonable to shift the focus to drinks that are most likely to have positive health impacts: coffee, tea, plain water and low fat milk."

The Bottom Line

A new study suggests that, over the long-term, switching just one serving per day of a sugar-sweetened drink for a less-sugary option might be enough to lower risk for early death. This research included people who had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a population among whom overall added sugar consumption matters a lot.

Still, the same moral of the story holds true for all humans: drinking water (still or sparkling), unsweetened coffee or tea or low-fat milk (or an unsweetened plant-based alternative) is a savvy move to reduce your overall calorie consumption and added sugar intake—while possibly playing a small role in longevity.

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