Previously, I’ve written here about the potential heart benefits of one of my favorite beverages: red (and white) wine. Lately, I’ve been interested in new research about the effect another beverage, diet soda, might have on the heart.
About one in every five Americans drinks diet soda in a given day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consumers of these low-calorie drinks often look to the advantage these drinks have over regular, sugared drinks. Some even consider the drinks part of a healthy lifestyle. The drinks are, after all, “diet.” That’s good, right?
Recent research suggests that the sugar substitutes in these drinks, usually aspartame or saccharin, might contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing diabetes. I’m sure consumers of diet sodas will be surprised by this, because we’ve been told the real culprit is regular, sugared sodas. Indeed, regular sodas contribute to diabetes, but we’re learning more about potential risks involved with their diet cousins.
How diet sodas might cause diabetes
In a recent study published by the journal Nature, researchers in Israel report the artificial sweeteners, common in diet soda, interfere with the natural ecosystem of bacteria in the digestive system of some animals.
We all have an array of beneficial bacteria and microbes living within us that keeps us healthy. Most of these live in our digestive tract. These organisms help us digest foods by breaking them down. We all have a unique balance of these organisms in our bodies depending on where we live, what we eat, and who our parents are – among other factors. And the balance of these microbes can change over time depending on our environment, stress levels, and what we put into our bodies.
The researchers in the Nature study fed mice artificial sweeteners to find out what effect the sweeteners might have on the bacteria of the digestive system. The results were astounding. The mice on “diet” soda developed diabetes! The researchers theorized that particular chemicals in artificial sweeteners, including phosphates, changed the makeup of the good bacteria in the bellies of the mice. Once the balance of bacteria had been altered, the ability of the mice to effectively digest food changed, and this led to diabetes.
It’s wildly ironic that a drink created to keep obesity and diabetes at bay might actually do the opposite!
Diabetes and heart health
We know that diabetes can directly lead to heart disease. Researchers here at UT Southwestern are on the forefront of documenting this link. So, in order to keep our hearts healthy, we need to think about ways to prevent diabetes. One of the ways to do this, based on the new study, is to consider easing off on the amount of soft drinks we consume, even the diet ones.
Of course, your mother might say: “Anything in moderation!” That wisdom applies here. I enjoy a diet soft drink every now and then. But I do not advocate carrying around “big gulps” of the stuff. If it’s caffeine you’re after, try some heart healthy alternatives like green tea. Just make sure you look at labels and try to avoid artificial sweeteners.