TEXAS, United States, Tuesday April 14, 2015 – Even as the debate rages over the possible health hazards of artificial sweeteners and diet sodas, their consumption continues to rise – as do obesity and other chronic diseases.
Amid the mounds of conflicting opinions, suspicion continues to loom large that artificial sweeteners are linked to some serious health risks, moreover: Overweight and obesity, high blood pressure, heart attack, haemorrhagic stroke, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and kidney dysfunction.
Now, a new American study has found what may be the “missing link” between artificial sweeteners, diet sodas, and at least some of these health conditions: belly fat.
Also known as visceral fat, as it ensheathes the visceral organs, belly fat is a known risk factor for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, among others.
The new study set out to determine whether there was any connection between diet soda consumption and this particular form of fat. If there was, the authors reasoned, it may partially explain the connection that some researchers believe exists between artificial sweeteners and the chronic diseases.
Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Centre at San Antonio followed 466 participants over the age of 65 for almost 10 years. The volunteers were quizzed about their diets, exercise routines, and other lifestyle habits, and had measurements taken of their height, weight and waist circumference at intervals throughout the study.
The findings showed that people who drank the most diet soda had a much steeper rise in waist circumference over the years than those who didn’t drink it at all.
Even after adjusting for other variables like age, activity level, smoking status, and waist circumference at the start of each follow-up interval, the results were still striking: Waist circumference increased 0.8 inches for non-diet-soda-drinkers, 1.83 in for occasional diet soda users, and 3.16 inches for daily diet soda users.
The scientists made no adjustment for calorie intake, and it’s possible that this or other variables were responsible for the connection. But it’s possible that belly fat could partially explain the many other health risks that are linked to artificial sweeteners. The question is: Why would artificial sweetener lead to increased belly fat?
One explanation that has attracted some recent attention is that artificial sweeteners may shift the assortment of friendly bacteria in the gut. A study last autumn found altered ratios of gut bacteria (along with glucose intolerance) in both mice and men after drinking artificially sweetened drinks for a week.
Gut bacteria are known to affect the way we digest and metabolize food, and if their ideal ratios are altered, it may pave the way for obesity and its attendant problems.
Study author Sharon Fowler also pointed out that diet sodas are “hyper-sweet,” which might mislead our bodies.
“We have sweetness receptors not just on our tongues but also in our intestines and pancreas,” says Fowler. “If these sweetness receptors are getting hyper-activated, they may be triggering the release of insulin when the body doesn’t really need it — or failing to trigger it when it does.” This could, over time, lead to metabolic dysfunction.
Another explanation is that it could be purely psychological, the rationale being that since we’re saving so many calories with diet drinks we think we’re entitled to them elsewhere.
The artificial sweetener/diet soda debate is not likely to be settled soon. Meanwhile, opting for naturally sweetened or unsweetened drinks is probably the best bet.
“The further away we get from eating real foods, the more we get into trouble,” says Fowler. “I’d urge people to consider giving up hyper-sweet beverages that we can’t even predict the consequences of at this point.
“If you need to the caffeine boost, switch to tea or coffee – the antioxidants may have the opposite effect from what’s happening with diet soda. Or if you’re craving sweets, move to actual fruit or to mineral water with a little splash of fruit juice. It doesn’t take a lot of sweetness to feel satisfied.”
Fowler also noted that there are other compounds in soda besides the sweetener. Last month, a highly publicized study suggested the caramel colour in some sodas, 4-methylimidazole, was found in amounts sufficient to increase our cancer risk, prompting the authors to call for federal regulation.