Diet Drinks No Better (Maybe Worse?) than Sugary Drinks

The consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages has long been associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, weight gain, obesity, metabolic syndrome, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, and heart disease. There are three main ways in which sugary drinks are thought to be responsible for these associations:

  • The inability of sugary drink consumption to reduce subsequent food intake. That is, if you drink a sugary drink before you eat, you won’t eat less.
  • The rapid increase in blood sugar and insulin levels after consuming sugar-sweetened beverages. High blood sugar and insulin contribute to each of the conditions mentioned above.
  • Sugary drinks contain fructose, which triggers hunger and has adverse effects on blood lipid production in the liver.

On the other hand, many people believe that diet drinks, or artificially-sweetened beverages, are a healthier option than sugar-sweetened drinks. While the harmful effects of sugary beverage consumption are well known, the effects of consumption of artificially-sweetened drinks on cardio-metabolic health are less certain. Unfortunately, studies to date have been few and inconsistent. Some studies have found an association between artificially-sweetened beverages and type 2 diabetes, weight gain, and cardio-metabolic dysfunction and some have not.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that both sugar-sweetened beverages and artificially-sweetened beverages were directly and indirectly associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.1 More intriguing was the finding that people who consumed artificially-sweetened beverages had an even higher risk of type 2 diabetes than people who consumed sugar-sweetened beverages. There are a couple possible reasons for the increased risk from artificial sweeteners: 

  • Researchers suggest that artificially-sweetened beverages could lead to an increased appetite and preference for sweets.
  • One widely used artificial sweetener, aspartame, has been found to increase insulin levels in the same way as sugar. 

With the current diabesity epidemic (diabetes + obesity = chronic disease), the timing of this study couldn’t be more important. The results of this research strongly support the need for more investigation into the potential negative effects of drinking artificially sweetened drinks, thought by many to be a “healthier” choice. Even the American Heart Association agrees, according to a recent joint scientific statement issued calling for more study into the link between artificial sweeteners and type 2 diabetes.2 

The truth is, both sugary drinks and artificially-sweetened drinks are troublesome, each in their own way. Fortunately, there is something we can do about it. As consumers, we have the choice about what we buy and put into our bodies. The first step is education. Do your own research. I certainly do, and I try to share as much of it with you as I can. 

The second step is to read labels. The ingredient label will tell you if your beverage contains added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Don’t be fooled by the many names under which sugar is disguised (here is a list). As for artificial sweeteners, steer clear of saccharin (the pink stuff), aspartame (NutraSweet), sucralose (Splenda), neotame, and acesulfame. 

What’s a thirsty person to do? Hydration is important. In fact, I recommend that you drink half your body weight in ounces daily. (If you weigh 140 pounds, drink 70 ounces of fluids). If you’re bored with water, don’t fret. Get creative with herbal teas. There are so many options to choose from and when chilled they provide tasty, refreshing, healthy hydration. Miss the fizz? Carbonated water with a splash of juice (or a combination of juices!) is the best way to satisfy your soda craving and your taste buds without the risk.  Try a splash of lime and pomegranate juice, or a splash of mango and papaya juice to turn your boring drink into a treat. Get creative. At first, your tongue may miss the sweetness, but over time you’ll find your taste buds don’t need a sugar overload to enjoy even mild sweet flavors. Enjoy!

 

  1. Fagherazzi G, et al., “Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidemiologique aupres des femmes de la Mutuelle Generale de l’Education Nationale-European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition cohort.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Mar;97(3):517-23.
  2. Gardner C, et al., “Nonnutritive sweeteners: current use and health perspectives: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association.” Circulation. 2012 Jul 24;126(4):509-19.
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