Our approach to nutrition is to keep things as simple as possible by eating real, whole, unprocessed foods. The problem is most of us have eaten highly processed foods with lots of added sugar for so long, that our taste buds freak out when we remove added sugar from our diets. Again, the “food industry” came to our rescue to save us from our over stimulated taste buds by giving us artificial sweeteners.
A study published this year found that consumption of artificial sweeteners jumped a whopping 200% among children and 54% among adults from 1999 to 2012. The researchers found that about 25% of children and about 41% of adults consumed artificial sweeteners during this period. The study also found that the majority of artificial sweetener consumption was in the form of beverages such as diet soda.
This can easily be confirmed by the amount of shelf space dedicated to soda in most gas stations in America.Our consumption of artificial sweeteners is fueled by or government’s endorsement. The FDA endorses the use of artificial sweeteners as safe over a lifetime when used within “acceptable daily intake (ADI)” levels. The acceptable daily intake established by the FDA for aspartame, the most popular soda sweeter, is 18 cans of diet soda a day. Big Gulp please!
Turns out there are lots of reasons to avoid artificial sweeteners. According to Susan Swithers of Purdue University, findings from a variety of studies show that routine consumption of diet sodas, even one per day, can be connected to higher likelihood of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high blood pressure, in addition to contributing to weight gain. Data from a number of studies, including the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, also reported greater risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and metabolic syndrome, which is related to diabetes and cardiovascular problems, for consumers of artificially sweetened beverages. Some data indicated that those who consumed artificially sweetened beverages had double the risk of metabolic syndrome compared to non-consumers.
But even though these risks are known by many, people still turn to diet sodas and artificial sweeteners as a way to lose fat by reducing calories. Turns out there might be more to reducing fat than just reducing calories. The San Antonio Heart Study reported an increase in body weight gain for adults and adolescents who consumed artificially sweetened beverages over beverages regularly sweetened. Research, including studies from Swithers and colleagues, shows that frequent consumption of high-intensity sweeteners may have the opposite effect by confusing the body's natural ability to manage calories based on tasting something sweet. Some of the connection could be related to how people behave by saying to themselves, 'I'm having a diet soda, so this cookie is OK.'
While there is evidence showing that replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners could cause fat gain, we have really not understood a possible mechanism until recently. A study published in 2014 showed that artificial sweeteners altered gut bacteria in a way that leads to glucose intolerance in both mice and humans. Glucose intolerance is a pre-diabetic state of high blood sugar that is associated with obesity and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The researchers found that regular consumption of the artificial sweeteners saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame all increased glucose intolerance. Also, healthy volunteers who did not normally consume artificial sweeteners were fed saccharin daily for a week. The majority of them developed poorer glycemic responses within one week, and had altered gut bacteria.
Having a little artificial sweetener once in a while probably won’t hurt you. On the other hand, a diet soda a day will most likely downgrade your gut bacteria and move you closer to Type II diabetes.
If you’re the kind of person who still needs one more reason to kick that diet soda habit, check this out. A study conducted in 2013 found that drinking more than four cans a day of soda is linked to a 30 percent higher risk of depression. On the flip side, drinking four cups of coffee a day seemed to offer protective effects, lowering depression risk 10 percent. The risk appeared to be greater for people who drank diet soda compared to regular soda.
If you really think you need to have soda once in a while, you’d probably be better off drinking one of those “new” sodas that actually contain sugar. But, remember sugar is addictive, so be ready. Your best bet—water, on the rocks!