Unsweetened Drinks Lower Your Diabetes Risk


Not adding sugar to your tea and coffee can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. With type 2 diabetes affecting almost one in ten adults world-wide, it’s good to know that something so relatively simple can reduce your risk: just replacing one sugary drink per day with water or unsweetened tea or coffee lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes by between 14% and 25%.

Research published in Diabetologia – the tongue-twisting title of the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes – included over 24,600 healthy men and women aged 40–79 years who were asked to record everything they ate or drank for seven consecutive days, including sugar-sweetened soft drinks, sweetened tea or coffee, sweetened milk drinks (eg milkshakes, flavoured milks, hot chocolate), artificially sweetened drinks and fruit juice.

Nearly all participants drank at least one sweet drink during their 7 days, with soft drinks proving the most popular (52%) but sweetened tea or coffee contributing most (33%) to the total beverage weight overall.

These volunteers were followed for an average of 11 years to see who went on to develop type 2 diabetes. Scientists from the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit, at the University of Cambridge, then performed statistical number-crunching to assess what would happen if drinks containing sugar were replaced with unsweetened tea, coffee or artificially sweetened drinks.

Unsweetened drinks protect against type 2 diabetes

First, the bad news – every serving of soft drinks, sweetened milk beverages and artificially-sweetened drinks increased the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by around 22%. After further accounting for body mass index and waist circumference, the higher risk of diabetes remained for both soft drinks and sweetened milk drinks, but the link with artificially-sweetened drinks disappeared as these were preferentially selected by people whose higher weight was the main underlying cause of their diabetes.


The good news is that fruit juice and sweetened tea or coffee was not related to type 2 diabetes, although that doesn’t give us carte blanche to spoon sugar into our morning cuppa. In fact, drinking unsweetened tea or coffee actually protected against type 2 diabetes, with every daily serving (280g) reducing the risk by 8%. Drinking water had no impact on risk at all.

The researchers concluded that replacing just one sugar-sweetened beverage (defined as carbonated soft drinks or diluted syrup) per day with water or unsweetened tea or coffee could reduce the risk of diabetes by 14%;  by replacing a sweetened milk beverage with water or unsweetened tea or coffee, the reduction was as high as 20%–25%.

The authors acknowledge the limitations of asking people to record what they eat, but as their study included detailed dietary assessments collected in real-time (rather than later recall) and involved so many people, with such a long follow-up period, they concluded  their method was robust enough to support recommendations from the World Health Organization that we should all limit the intake of free sugars in our diet.

Previous studies agree

This research supports previous research linking tea with a reduced risk of diabetes, but conflicts with other studies which suggest that drinking cocoa has beneficial effects on insulin resistance.

As a cocoa lover, I can rationalise that proper cocoa – with a high cocoa solids content and little sugar – is a different animal from the over-sweetened, artificially-flavoured hot chocolate and chocolate milk that may have accounted for these findings. That’s what I’m hoping, anyway!

Cinnamon and chromium supplements have also been shown to improve glucose control and may help to reduce the development of type 2 diabetes.

Image credits: foto-rabe/pixabay, kawashimamsk/pixabay

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Dr Sarah Brewer
QUORA EXPERT - TOP WRITER 2018 Dr Sarah Brewer MSc (Nutr Med), MA (Cantab), MB, BChir, RNutr, MBANT, CNHC Cert IoD qualified from Cambridge University with degrees in Natural Sciences, Medicine and Surgery. After working in general practice, she gained a master's degree in nutritional medicine from the University of Surrey. Sarah is a registered Medical Doctor, a registered Nutritionist and a registered Nutritional Therapist. She is an award winning author of over 70 popular self-help books and a columnist for Prima magazine.

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