Care for some water? No way! Get me a Diet Coke, or a Coke Zero.
Water is for washing hands, not drinking. And regular soft drinks and juice are full of sugars and calories.
So you decided a long time ago to go with artificial sweeteners. After a while, you didn't even notice the slightly different taste compared to sugar-sweetened beverages. And diet drinks are zero calories. Win-win. Both taste buds AND body are happy. A no-brainer, right?
Not so fast.
A fascinating article - Artificially Sweetened Beverages Cause for Concern - recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), challenges the notion that artificial sweeteners are risk free.
The article's author, David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD, a Harvard professor and Founding Director of the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) clinic at Children's Hospital, Boston, makes three important points, especially in the context of artificially sweetened drinks:
1. Our body gets confused by artificial sweeteners - The dissociation between sweet taste and calorie intake may put the regulatory system that controls hunger and body weight out of sync, thus sabotaging weight loss plans. A study on rodents showed that those fed saccharin actually gained weight compared to rodents fed sucrose.
2. We're "infantilizing" our taste sense - Artificial sweeteners are a hundredfold sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). By getting ourselves used to so much sweet, normal sweet flavors, of fruit for example, become bland and so do other healthful foods such as grains and vegetables, thus reducing our willingness to consume them and ultimately compromising the quality of our diet.
3. Long term effects remain unclear - While there have been many studies on artificial sweeteners and diseases such cancer, very few focused on long term weight gain. A seven year study, (San Antonio Heart Study), showed a relationship between diet drink consumption and obesity, but the causation is not clear. Consumption of artificial sweeteners is growing yearly. According to Ludwig:
If trends in consumption continue, the nation will, in effect, have embarked on a massive, uncontrolled, and inadvertent public health experiment. Although many synthetic chemicals have been added to the food supply in recent years, artificial sweeteners in beverages stand out in their ability to interact with evolutionarily ancient sensorineural pathways at remarkably high affinity.
What to do at the supermarket:
Whether sweetened with sugar, or artificially, our body does not need any drink but water. And while switching overnight from a life without H2O seems impossible, you can opt for baby steps such as watering down juice, consuming soda only during predefined meals/weekly activities, and getting your sweet tooth filled with juicy fruits such as oranges, melons, pears, and apples. If money is your motivator - think about the $500 a year a family of four can save by just switching to tap water.