The sweet habit healthy girls can’t quit

You live on kale and sprouted bread, but still crack open a daily diet soft drink. But is this ‘harm­less’ sip sab­o­tag­ing your body goals? WH in­ves­ti­gates

Women's Health Australia - - DECEMBER 2017 - By Roisín Dervish-o’kane

Could this one ‘harm­less’ thing be sab­o­tag­ing your well­ness goals?

Pic­ture the scene: Lunch has come and gone and, in of­fices across the land, Tup­per­ware once home to preppeda­head sweet potato, chick­peas and spinach lie empty. The temp­ta­tion to at­tack the of­fice tub of mini brown­ies is oh-so-real. But rather than blow a truck­load of kilo­joules on cake, women na­tion­wide reach for some­thing else in­stead: ‘guilt-free’ cans of chem­i­cally sweet­ened car­bon­ated liq­uid. Are they hyp­o­crit­i­cal self-sabo­teurs for fol­low­ing healthy, to­tally ’grammable meals with a diet fizzy drink? Per­haps, which makes it all the more dif­fi­cult to ad­mit that I’m one of them. A health writer who knows her nu­tri­tion – and should know bet­ter – but can’t get enough of the stuff. Jour­nal­ist Ge­or­gia Scarr is an­other self-con­fessed fan. Glance at her In­sta­gram and you’ll see all the healthy-girl hall­marks. Bird’s-eye view of eggs atop kale and roasted veg? Check. One lithe, toned body con­torted into im­pres­sive yoga po­si­tions? Check again. But one life­style ri­tual that doesn’t make the edit is her diet cola habit. “I have a sweet tooth, but I don’t make a habit of eat­ing junk food,” she says. “I mon­i­tor my [kilo­joules], and want them to be from nu­tri­tious food and drink, not sugar. But then the crav­ing for some­thing fizzy hits. I know diet drinks aren’t good for me and can’t say I’m proud of my habit.”

So what’s go­ing on? The en­dur­ing ap­peal of kilo­joule-free fizzy pop might jar with the cur­rent ‘it’s a life­style, not a diet’ healthy-eat­ing Zeit­geist, but Jane Og­den, professor of health psy­chol­ogy at the UK’S Uni­ver­sity of Sur­rey and author of The Psy­chol­ogy of Eat­ing, isn’t sur­prised. “So-called ‘diet’ drinks still ap­peal be­cause, though peo­ple may pack­age it as ‘eat­ing well’ or ‘look­ing af­ter your­self’, many of us are es­sen­tially still di­et­ing,” she ex­plains. And while our goals may be more rip­pling abs than thigh gap, she is right in that the ma­jor­ity of us want to keep our body fat low. “The word ‘diet’ car­ries pow­er­ful con­no­ta­tions of be­ing lean, healthy and in con­trol,” Og­den ex­plains. “So while we con­tinue to as­pire to those things, ‘diet’ la­belling will draw us in – even if we’d rather not ad­mit it.” Put like that, our fond­ness for diet drinks doesn’t seem so in­con­gru­ous.

But the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion: is crack­ing open a can sweet­ened with chem­i­cals such as su­cralose and as­par­tame ac­tu­ally help­ful when you’re try­ing to get – and stay – lean? Science says, per­haps not! A study in The Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Clin­i­cal Nu­tri­tion found those who guz­zled one litre of a diet fizzy drink daily gained 1.5kg af­ter six months. The group who drank full-sugar soft drinks gained 10kg. So the diet op­tion had less of an im­pact, sure – but why did the diet-drinkers gain weight at all, given th­ese drinks are both kilo­joule- and sugar-free?

Mixed mes­sages

As it stands, there’s no ev­i­dence­based an­swer. But Robert Lustig, professor of en­docrinol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia and an­ti­sugar cam­paigner, has a pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion: that con­sum­ing ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers can alter your bio­chem­istry and pre­dis­pose you to gain­ing fat. “The diet soft drink group gained weight not be­cause they were in­creas­ing their [kilo­joules], but be­cause their in­sulin lev­els had risen,” he says. “The more in­sulin you have in your blood, the more [kilo­joules] you’ll store as fat. So any­thing that raises in­sulin will make you gain weight.”

Trans­la­tion: Be­cause they don’t con­tain any ac­tual sugar, ar­ti­fi­cially sweet­ened drinks shouldn’t tech­ni­cally spike in­sulin. But in a study in the jour­nal Di­a­betes

Care, re­searchers split their study par­tic­i­pants into two groups and sup­plied half with a diet soft drink. They tested their in­sulin and glu­cose lev­els af­ter­wards and found 20 per cent more in­sulin in the blood of those who’d drunk the ar­ti­fi­cially

sweet­ened drinks than those who hadn’t. Why? It’s all down to the fact the body is primed to de­tect sweet­ness. So when some­thing sweet hits your tongue, spe­cific re­cep­tors are trig­gered. “First, they send a mes­sage to the brain to say that sugar is in­com­ing,” says Lustig. “Then the brain sends a mes­sage to the pan­creas telling it to ex­pect the sugar, so it pre­pares to re­lease in­sulin.” But when you drink an ar­ti­fi­cially sweet­ened drink, the sugar never comes. Re­sult? The pan­creas sends out the mes­sage you need to seek out more glu­cose to trig­ger the re­lease of its in­sulin.

Sugar fixed

Case in point: Yas­min, 25, drinks sev­eral cans of diet fizzy drinks a week to help her stick to a ‘no-sugar life­style’. “It means I can have the sweet taste with­out con­sum­ing any ac­tual sugar,” she says. Down nearly 13kg, and hit­ting the gym four times a week, Yas­min is de­ter­mined to main­tain her meth­ods. “If th­ese drinks help me stick to a plan that works, I don’t see it as a prob­lem,” she says. But Lustig warns that Yas­min may be mak­ing life harder for her­self. “Drink­ing ar­ti­fi­cially sweet­ened drinks when you’re not eat­ing real sugar is self-de­feat­ing,” he says. “The point of a ‘no-sugar life­style’ is to de­sen­si­tise your­self to sweet foods, but if you’re reg­u­larly con­sum­ing sugar-free fizzy drinks, then you’re re-sen­si­tis­ing your­self.”

So, the jury’s out on whether slim­mers should sip so freely – and there’s also still much we don’t know about how ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers are linked to dis­ease risk. While a re­cent study by Boston Uni­ver­sity School of Medicine did show that peo­ple who drank diet drinks had an in­creased chance of de­men­tia and strokes, lead author Dr Matthew Pase cau­tions this is early re­search – so it’s im­pos­si­ble to gauge cause and ef­fect. As for claims that sweet­en­ers such as as­par­tame could cause can­cer? “The bal­ance of ev­i­dence is that ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers are safe for us to con­sume,” says clin­i­cal di­eti­tian Rick Miller. “Some ex­per­i­ments on mice demon­strated a link be­tween as­par­tame and the growth of can­cer­ous tu­mours – but it is not clear if we can di­rectly re­late th­ese re­sults to hu­mans.”

Miller’s mes­sage for us ha­bit­ual drinkers? Don’t freak out, but do cut down – on all fizzy drinks. “Reg­u­lar and diet va­ri­eties con­tain phos­phoric acid, which re­search sug­gests can re­duce bone min­eral den­sity,” he says. And let’s be clear – a stress frac­ture caused by weak bones is go­ing to have a worse ef­fect on your aes­thetic and ath­letic goals than a few mini brown­ies. Still, I can’t prom­ise that I won’t have had a sneaky sip of my old poi­son by the time you’ve read this. But if I do choose to crack open a can, it cer­tainly won’t be done mind­lessly. Be­cause, while a part of me may still be sold on the zero-sugar, zero-kilo­joule prom­ise, there’s a big chance that my body is not.

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