You could search all day in Sharon Fowler’s kitchen and pantry and there’s one thing you’d never, ever find: diet soda.
“Absolutely not,” said Fowler, M.P.H., adjunct faculty in the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.
Fowler was the lead author of a paper published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society that described how consuming diet sodas was linked to subsequent increases in waist size among people 65 and older: The more diet sodas they drank, the more their waist size grew over the next decade. Data for the study came from the San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging (SALSA), led by Helen P. Hazuda, Ph.D., senior author and professor of medicine at the Health Science Center. Ken Williams, M.S., P.Stat., adjunct faculty in the School of Medicine, co-authored the paper and performed all analyses reported in it.
“There’s a heated debate about whether this is a causal relationship,” Fowler said. “It’s my personal opinion that it is.”
One of the explanations is that the artificial sweeteners themselves affect the metabolism, Fowler explained. If a person tastes something sweet, it’s not just the brain that absorbs the information; so do other parts of the body. When the body registers sweetness, it ramps up to deal with sugar. But if there isn’t real sugar present, the body doesn’t know how to handle it.
“It’s kind of like crying wolf,” she said, and can lead to metabolic dysregulation. The results of animal studies certainly suggest that this is the case.
To make matters worse, Fowler said, one of the most dangerous places you can gain weight is your middle, because increasing waist size is linked to increasing visceral fat and an increase in inflammation, which is tied to the increased risk of arthritis, diabetes, cancer, heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease and other major medical problems.
“What I am most concerned about is this: When women are pregnant and they’re using diet sodas, or consuming artificial sweeteners in other ways, what is happening to their unborn child? There are a number of people who have reported neurological problems when they themselves have taken certain artificial sweeteners—brain fog, memory loss. I want to look at whether the unborn child is at increased risk of developing neurological problems when the mother has been exposed to artificial sweeteners. To me, that would be infinitely worse than gaining or losing a few pounds.”