Almost every week, a new statistic emerges about the rising tide of lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. A huge number of factors contributes to this phenomenon including lifestyle choices and genetics, but shifts in dietary practices resulting in an increase in the intake of highly processed foods is a major contributor. In particular, regular consumption of high-calorie sugar-sweetened drinks has been linked to weight gain and a constellation of indicators of ill-health known as the metabolic syndrome.
Drinks that contain large amounts of added sugar are readily available in shops, newsagents, petrol stations, bars and restaurants. Today's article is about the erroneous assumption that removing the sugar somehow makes these drinks healthy.
With sugar-sweetened drinks linked to an increased risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity, drinks companies had to come up with a new slant. "Sweetness without the calories" is probably the best way to express it.
Out of this concept, "diet", "no added sugar" and "zero-calorie" drinks were developed using various forms of artificial sweeteners. The presence of these was paramount. Artificial sweeteners are food additives that are often hundreds of times sweeter than a comparable amount of sugar, and are added to foods and drinks to make them taste sweet – minus the calories. Some of the most common artificial sweeteners are aspartame, sucralose and saccharin. Some health practitioners believe they are an ideal replacement for sugar-sweetened drinks while others say they should be avoided.
WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?
Studies have linked artificial sweeteners to an increased risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes and digestive problems. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified artificial sweeteners as safe to use, while the American Cancer Society has said there is no link between aspartame and cancer. And so for decades, artificially sweetened foods and drinks have been recommended as suitable options for diabetics and those overweight.
However, the recommendation to consume artificially sweetened drinks as an alternative to sugar-sweetened varieties is coming under fire. Mounting research suggests that rather than preventing weight gain and the risk of some diseases, artificially sweetened drinks can induce a whole series of physiological and hormonal responses that contribute to weight gain, and may even increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Similarly, a recent study in the US involving more than 250,000 people found that depression was more common among frequent consumers of artificially sweetened drinks. In such studies, it is often hard to decipher cause and effect – do sufferers of depression gravitate towards these drinks as a habit, or do these drinks contribute to depression?
HOW CAN CALORIE-FREE DRINKS BE A RISK TO HEALTH?
It has not been clearly established why the intake of artificially sweetened drinks is leading to increased weight and the risk of type 2 diabetes, but some of the suggested reasons are that they interfere with the body's ability to adjust to sugar and energy fluctuations.
Frequent consumption (but only one drink per day) of artificially sweetened drinks can affect the metabolic responses to energy intake by altering the response in the brain's pleasure centre to a sweet taste. Rather than satisfying your need for something sweet, these drinks cause an increased desire for sweet-tasting foods.
It is claimed that people who regularly consume artificially sweetened drinks are more likely to seek calorie-dense, sugar-rich foods. So a vicious circle emerges: rather than diet drinks satisfying your need for something sweet, they intensify it, leading to over-eating.
WHAT SHOULD I DRINK?
Despite what the drinks companies and even some health professionals may tell you, satisfying your need for sweet foods with artificially sweetened foods or drinks is not the right option. Processed foods of any kind, even "low-calorie" or "calorie-free", should be avoided. Water, tea, coffee and fresh homemade juices are the only fluids that we should really consume for hydration.
If you find it difficult to drink plain water, or if you want to add flavour to it, a good option is using some freshly-squeezed juice or vegetables. Using fresh fruit, herbs and vegetables in iced water is a great drink to serve at parties. Sparkling water with fresh lemon, cucumber and mint leaves is a personal favourite.
Check out @FoodFlicker on Twitter in the next few days for a refreshing drink idea.
WHAT'S THE MESSAGE?
Although artificially sweetened drinks contain little or no calories, through various metabolic mechanisms frequent intakes can pose health risks.
You shouldn't have to turn to something that is artificially produced to satisfy your cravings. Don't tell me that you can't make a tasty drink with lime, fresh mint or other fresh food options!
Daniel Davey BSc MSc, CSCS, NEHS is a performance nutritionist