The dark side of ‘diet’ drinks?


Zero-calorie beverages may seem appealing – but a new paper argues that artificially sweetened drinks could actually throw off your metabolism, affecting the way your body processes regular sugars.

Published in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, the report argues that artificially sweetened beverages are not only linked with ill health effects similar to those associated with consuming regular soda – but they may even cause worse long term health outcomes.

“In lots of ways, (artificial sweeteners) have been given the benefit of the doubt just because they don’t have any calories,” lead author Susan Swithers, of the department of psychological sciences and ingestive behavior research center at Purdue University, told

Researchers have noted a correlation between diet soda consumption and poor health for years, but Swithers maintained that the link has never been thoroughly examined.

“The typical response has been to dismiss this from the perspective of, ‘It’s only people who are unhealthy or heavy who drink diet soda in the first place,’” Swithers said.

However, Swithers and her colleagues hypothesize that behavioral explanations aren’t fully to blame. In fact, based on an analysis of research, they predict that artificial sweeteners may actually train people’s brains and bodies to react differently when they taste something sweet.

“When the body responds normally to sugar, it signals that an intake of both calories and sugar has occurred so the body can release the hormones needed to prepare,” Swithers said. “(This) prevents big spikes in blood sugar, and those same hormones are thought to have direct effects on satiety,” Swithers said.

Yet, when people eat something that tastes sweet – but introduces no real sugar into the blood system – it may throw off the body’s response mechanism, Swithers noted.  

“What happens when you have a sweetener is you get that sweet taste – but calories and sugar don’t show up,” Swithers said. “Your body says, ‘Wait, this isn’t what I was expecting to happen,’ and over time you may not produce those same anticipatory responses.”

Blunting those responses could cause people to overeat and experience consistently higher blood sugar levels, which could potentially lead to the onset of Type 2 diabetes, according to Swithers.

Overall, Swithers is calling for more research to be done into the connection between artificial sweeteners and poor health.

“Until we can recognize that these risks exist, we won’t be able to figure out what is causing them and how to avoid them,” Swithers said.

In a statement regarding the paper, the American Beverage Association said, “This is an opinion piece not a scientific study.  Low-calorie sweeteners are some of the most studied and reviewed ingredients in the food supply today.  They are safe and an effective tool in weight loss and weight management, according to decades of scientific research and regulatory agencies around the globe.”


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