03/29/2012 11:58 pm ET

Why The Whole Diet (And Not Just Diet Soda Intake) Matters For Good Health

With all the studies coming out linking diet soda with a bevy of health issues -- including increased stroke and heart attack risks, and even weight gain -- one may wonder whether it's actually the drink that is causing the health problems, or if it's that people who are already unhealthy tend to drink diet soda.

Well, a new study is trying to clear that up by looking not only at the diet soda-drinking habits of people, but also the diets of people who regularly consume those drinks.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that people in their study who ate the more unhealthy, "western" diets of pizza, fast food and meat were also the ones most likely to have heart disease -- and it didn't matter whether they were diet beverage drinkers or not.

Meanwhile, people who ate a "prudent" diet -- meaning, lots of whole grains, fish, milk and fruit -- and didn't drink any diet drinks were the ones with the lowest risk of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is comprised of a group of conditions, including excess body fat, high cholesterol and increase blood pressure or blood sugar levels, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The group that had the second lowest risk of metabolic syndrome was comprised of people who ate the "prudent" diet but also drank diet drinks.

The study included 827 people who were followed over a 20-year period, Reuters reported. The research was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

"It is important that people consider the entirety of their diet before they consider switching to or adding diet beverages, because without doing so they may not realize the health benefits they were hoping to see," study researcher Kiyah Duffey, Ph.D., research assistant professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, said in a statement.

However, Duffey did note that the people who drank the diet drinks -- even when they had the "prudent" diet -- had a higher risk of metabolic syndrome compared to those who didn't drink any diet drinks. For a look at all the potential health conditions linked with soda consumption -- both the sugary and diet kinds -- click through the slideshow:

Soda Health Risks