It seems counter-intuitive, but it might be true. Artificially sweetened drinks could be contributing to the obesity epidemic.
Ordering a Diet Coke may make you feel less guilty about an afternoon snack, but there’s little data to show that switching to diet drinks does anything to help control weight in the long run. Some data even shows an increase in weight gain among frequent users.
Five artificial sugar substitutes have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame, neotame and saccharin. A 2007 review in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (61:691-700) looked at epidemiological, laboratory, and clinical studies of their usefulness and ultimately decided that the data is just not clear enough to say much of anything. Since scientific findings are mixed, there’s no official recommendation about using artificial sweeteners as a tool to lose weight or to limit the addition of new pounds of fat.
With simple logic, replacing a 140-calorie Coke with one that contains no calories should stave off one twenty-fifth of a pound of body fat. Over time, that should add up. By always drinking a Diet Coke with a meal rather than the 140-calorie version, over 25 meals a dieter should prevent the addition of one extra pound.
The problem with using simple logic is that the human body isn’t that simple. It’s a highly complex product of nature with innate intelligence beyond what we perceive with our minds.
Sweet natural foods like fruit supply the body with a ready to use form of energy, and that energy induces changes in the brain and body. But artificial sweeteners uncouple the sweet taste from energy content. It confuses our brain’s regulatory centers that help us to accurately assess how many calories we’ve consumed. We throw an artificial wrench in the bio-computer.
At Purdue University in Indiana, researchers found that saccharin-fed rats took in more food overall and gained more weight than rats fed sugar sweetened food. The usually saccharin-fed rats also had a smaller rise in core body temperature after eating sugary foods later. Basically that means they burned calories less efficiently, ate more, and gained weight when given artificial sweeteners in place of sugar.
In humans, a San Antonia Heart Study found that consuming more diet drinks over a 7-year period was associated with weight gain. Drinking more than 21 servings of diet drinks in a week rather than none doubled the risk of being overweight or obese. 21 servings a week is about 3 servings per day, or 24 ounces. Sound like a lot? Its not when you realize that an average bottle of Coke from the soda machine contains 2.5 servings, or 20 ounces.
Another report, the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, looked at 6814 adults and found that daily consumption of diet drinks was associated with a 67% greater risk for type 2 diabetes.
Both studies of observational data must be taken with a grain of salt though, because it’s possible that people first gained weight and then switched to diet drinks. It’s a little bit of “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Given the animal studies, the possibility that there’s more to the biochemistry of artificial sweeteners than we realized must be seriously considered.
The best bet? Avoid unnecessary synthetic chemicals whenever you can, and that includes in your no-calorie drinks.
Drink water. Add a slice of fresh lemon or cucumber with nothing else. It’s delicious!