by Dr. Will Cole
We all know sugar is no friend to vibrant health, so doesn’t it make sense that sugar-free artificially sweetened sodas, teas, and sport drinks are a better choice? That’s certainly how they are marketed – as best for anyone trying to lose weight or control their diabetes. These diet drinks are normally flavored with artificial sweeteners like saccharine (Sweet N’ Low), sucralose (Splenda) or aspartame (Equal).
But are they really a better option than sugary soda? There has been a long-standing debate about this. In the conventional nutritional world, which is primarily concerned with counting calories for those seeking to lose weight or deal with diabetes, diet drinks are encouraged as the preferred zero-calorie option. Diabetic nutritional classes typically educate patients to opt for the sugar-free options as the healthy alternative.
But the alternative health world – the world of holistic health, functional medicine, and other natural health care modalities – wouldn’t give the “diet devil” (aka diet soda) to their worst enemy. This opinion does not come out of nowhere. There is some pretty interesting science to support the notion that diet soda can actually result in some pretty serious health declines.
Of course, as with many health issues, the medical literature has been conflicting. One 2011 study actually showed improved blood sugar in slightly overweight healthy individuals who consumed the artificially sweetened foods instead of ones containing sugar (sucrose). However, more recent research has correlated a 66% increase risk of diabetes with consuming just 20 ounces of diet soda per week! Another recent and compelling study from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science further investigated the correlation between artificial sweeteners, weight gain, and diabetes. The study, published in the scientific journal Nature, revealed these startling results:
- People consuming artificial sweeteners had overall higher blood sugars than those who rarely or never did. Some saw an increase in their blood sugars after just one week of consuming the fake sugars.
- Mice given the artificial sweeteners gained just as much weight and had higher blood sugars than the ones given regular sugar, despite consuming fewer calories!
What’s really fascinating about this study is what they did next. The Israeli researchers transferred the gut bacteria of the mice and of the people fed the food with artificial sweeteners over to mice who were not exposed to artificial sweeteners. This second group of mice receiving this gut bacteria experienced increased blood sugars after the transplant!
This implies that artificial sweeteners seem to change the microbiome (the billions of beneficial bacteria living in the gut) in a way that contributes to higher blood sugar and possibly higher diabetes risk. Because we all have different microbiomes with variations of different bacterial species, this could explain why some see an increase in diabetes with artificial sweetener consumption and some don’t.
The foods we eat impact our gut which in turn impacts our genes and our weight. I have written previously how the microbiome is the new frontier in understanding weight gain and disease. We are just beginning to understand this exciting field of research, but in the meantime, I would most definitely err on the side of caution when it comes to diet soda. Clinically, I have seen strong gut modulators like diet soda affect not only diabetics but chronic brain symptoms, fatigue, and fibromyalgia. If you are thirsty, I urge you to drink a nice fresh glass of water instead.
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