Your diet drink habit is harm­less enough, right? Don’t be so sure

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - THE WRITER Roisín Dervish-o’kane, WH’S Fea­tures Writer

Pic­ture the scene: lunch has come and gone and, in of­fices across the land, Tup­per­wares once home to prepped-ahead sweet potato, chick­peas and spinach lie empty. The temp­ta­tion to at­tack the of­fice tub of M&S mini brown­ies is oh-so real. But rather than blow a few hun­dred calo­ries on a hand­ful, women na­tion­wide reach in­stead for ‘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 tricky to ad­mit I am one of them. A health writer who knows her nu­tri­tion – and should know bet­ter – but can’t get enough of the stuff. An­other is jour­nal­ist Ge­or­gia Scarr. 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 calo­ries, and I 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. I can’t say I’m proud of my habit.’ The en­dur­ing ap­peal of calo­rie-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 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.’ 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,’ Pro­fes­sor Og­den adds. ‘So while we con­tinue to as­pire to those things, “diet” la­belling will draw us in – even if we’d rather not ad­mit it.’ Put in those terms, our fond­ness for diet drinks doesn’t seem so in­con­gru­ous. But is crack­ing open a can ac­tu­ally help­ful when you’re try­ing to get – and stay – lean? Bosses at Slim­ming World ap­pear to think so. The or­gan­i­sa­tion (which has over 900,000 mem­bers in the UK) clas­si­fies diet co­las as a ‘free’ food, mean­ing that its mem­bers don’t have to track how much they con­sume. Yet when you take a look at the ev­i­dence, this per­mis­sive at­ti­tude to drinks sweet­ened with chem­i­cals such as su­cralose and as­par­tame could be far from help­ful. In one study, pub­lished in the American Jour­nal of Clin­i­cal Nu­tri­tion, sci­en­tists found that par­tic­i­pants who drank 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 any weight at all, given these drinks are calo­rie- and su­gar-free?


As it stands, there’s no ev­i­dence-based an­swer. But Robert Lustig, pro­fes­sor of en­docrinol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia and anti-su­gar cam­paigner, has a pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion – es­sen­tially that con­sum­ing ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers can sig­nif­i­cantly al­ter your bio­chem­istry and pre­dis­pose you to gain­ing fat. ‘The diet soft drink group gained weight not be­cause they were in­creas­ing their calo­ries, but be­cause their in­sulin lev­els had risen,’ he says. In­sulin is a hor­mone that al­lows your body to use su­gar (or glu­cose) from car­bo­hy­drates, or store it for fu­ture use. ‘The more in­sulin you have in your blood, the more calo­ries you’ll store as fat,’ adds Pro­fes­sor Lustig. ‘So any­thing that raises in­sulin will make you gain weight.’ Be­cause they don’t con­tain any ac­tual su­gar, ar­ti­fi­cially sweet­ened drinks shouldn’t tech­ni­cally spike in­sulin. But, in one study in the jour­nal Di­a­betes Care, re­searchers split their study par­tic­i­pants into two groups and sup­plied half with a diet soft drink. They then tested their glu­cose and in­sulin lev­els af­ter­wards and found 20% more in­sulin in the blood of those who’d drunk the fake

sug­ary drinks than those who hadn’t. Why? It’s all down to the fact that 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,’ ex­plains Pro­fes­sor 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 and the pan­creas sends out the mes­sage that you need to seek out more glu­cose.


Yas­min, 25, con­sumes 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 2st, wear­ing jeans for the first time in years, and hit­ting the gym for strength and car­dio ses­sions four times a week, Yas­min is stead­fast that she’ll main­tain her meth­ods. ‘If these drinks help me stick to a plan that works, I don’t see it as a prob­lem.’ But Pro­fes­sor Lustig warns that Yas­min may be mak­ing life hard 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 is still much we don’t know about how ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers are linked to dis­ease risk, too. While a re­cent study did show that peo­ple who drank diet drinks had an in­creased chance of de­vel­op­ing can­cer or strokes, lead au­thor Dr Matthew Pase cau­tions that 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 choco­late 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-calo­rie prom­ise, there is a big chance that my body is not.

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