Rethink Your Diet Drink

Rethink Your Diet Drink

If you’re among the 59% of Americans who regularly sip diet drinks, it’s time for a change. A ground-breaking, big-impact study says the artificial sweeteners in zero-calorie soda -- and in other drinks, foods and those colorful little packets -- change your digestive system’s bacteria in ways that raise your blood sugar levels.

Researchers fed three artificial sweeteners -- saccharin, sucralose and aspartame -- to mice for 11 weeks. The animals’ ability to transfer blood sugar into their cells diminished and their gut microbiome (the trillions of bacteria that live in the digestive system) changed for the worse. In a follow-up study, seven humans ingested artificial sweeteners every day for a week and four developed the same problems.

Now that’s a very small human study. But this isn’t the first time artificial sweeteners have been found to cause metabolic problems: Three big studies have found that even one diet soda a day boosts odds for metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes and heart disease, by 34% to 44%.

We think it’s time to rethink the use of artificial sweeteners, especially since this news comes on the heels of other discoveries about how they may affect your health:

  • Higher heart health risks.  Older women who sipped two or more diet drinks daily had a 30% higher risk for a heart attack in a recent University of Iowa study of 59,614 women.
  • Trigger more food cravings. People who had diet drinks were more likely to think about and eat high-calorie, sugary snacks, a new Texas Christian University study finds.
  • May cause weight gain. In several large studies of adults and kids, diet soda-drinkers gained more weight over several years than those who sipped regular soft drinks or none at all.

What should you sip? Not sugary drinks. We agree 100% with our friends at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who say, “No diet-soda drinker should interpret the study as license to switch to regular soda.” There’s no doubt that the calorie and sugar overload in regular soda -- and in bottled tea, iced coffee, and energy drinks -- is bad news for your weight, your waistline, your heart and your blood sugar. Steer clear of lower-sugar sodas starting to pop up in stores, too. They still contain a lot of refined sugar -- nearly 9 teaspoons in a 12-ounce can. Instead, try these two tips:

1) Create your own signature thirst-quencher. Water’s great! Your body needs nine (for women) to 11 (for men) cups a day; more if you’re active. Then:

  • Add a squeeze of lemon or lime or use single-serve packets of tart, unsweetened lemon or lime flavoring.
  • Brew unsweetened iced tea. Try caffeine-free or herbal flavors.
  • Plop a couple of strawberries, orange slices, lime wedges, or cucumber rounds into a pitcher of water, then refrigerate overnight.
  • Rustle up homemade iced coffee with or without a splash of skim milk and with a shake of cinnamon and/or a dash of vanilla extract. Brew extra in the morning or put on a pot of decaf later in the day so your iced coffee doesn’t keep you up at night.
  • Try calorie-free seltzer or club soda with a citrus spritz or mix in a splash of your favorite real fruit juice for a treat.  

2) Think twice about other diet foods, too. Some sugar-free candies, salad dressings, ice cream, packaged desserts, yogurt and preserves are made with artificial sweeteners. A better idea: Splurge on your favorite fruit, like juicy citrus, frozen raspberries, ripe pears, exotic pomegranates or crunchy apples.  Serve over sugar-free, low-fat plain yogurt with a generous dusting of cinnamon, nutmeg or cocoa -- or all three!

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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