Nov. 14, 2011 (Orlando, Fla.) -- Once again, sugar-sweetened beverages are on the firing line. New research shows that two or more sugary drinks a day may increase a woman's waistline and risk of heart disease -- even if she doesn't gain weight.
In a study of more than 4,000 people aged 45 to 84, women who drank at least two sugar-sweetened beverages a day were nearly four times as likely to develop higher than normal levels of blood fats called triglycerides in their blood, compared with women who drank less than one a day.
They were also more likely to pack on belly fat. Belly fat has been linked to a number a health risks, including heart disease and diabetes.
And they were four times more likely to have abnormal blood glucose levels, indicating prediabetes.
The risks were higher even in women of normal weight and women who didn’t gain weight.
Many people assume that drinking a lot of sugary beverages leads to obesity, and that drives up heart risks, says Christina Shay, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.
Although that may occur, weight gain doesn't explain the increased risk of heart disease associated with sugary beverages in this study, she tells WebMD.
Shay presented the findings here at the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Scientific Sessions 2011.
Study Doesn't Show Cause and Effect
One in two Americans drinks at least one sugary drink a day, according to the CDC. And one in 20 Americans drinks four or more a day.
In contrast, the AHA recommends that adults and children drink fewer than 450 calories or 36 ounces of sugary drinks per week to prevent heart disease.
"There's a lot of concern," says AHA spokeswoman Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, a nutritionist at Tufts University in Boston.
Although this study does show a link between these heart risk factors and sugary drinks, it’s important to note that the study doesn’t prove that sugar-sweetened beverages cause heart disease.
The American Beverage Association (ABA), which represents the soft drink industry, agrees. In response to the findings, it issued a statement saying, "This type of study cannot show that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages causes increased risk for cardiovascular disease. It simply looks at associations between the two, which could be the result of numerous other ... factors."
There was no association between drinking sugary drinks and heart disease risk factors in men. That could be because women require fewer calories for metabolism, Shay says. "They may have a greater chance for developing risk factors when a greater chunk of those calories comes from sugar-sweetened drinks."
The bottom line is that sugary drinks are empty calories, says American College of Cardiology vice president John Harold, MD, a heart specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"Cut them out of your diet, and you'll improve your health," he tells WebMD. Harold says he recommends water, bottled or tap, to his patients.
These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.