Science

Diet drinks may actually make you fatter

Photo credit: funkyah

By Eleanor Parkyn

We’ve all been there; justifying going large on your McDonald’s order by swapping your drink for the diet version. Since they were invented diet sodas have been plugged as weight loss tools, as they allow us to enjoy the sweet taste (supposedly) without putting on weight. While there have been many conflicting debates surrounding diet drinks and weight gain, research now suggests that despite the lack of sugar, diet soft drinks can actually cause us to put on more weight than if we just stuck to the sugar filled original.

Research now suggests that this is down to aspartame, an artificial sweetener that contains no calories and is often used in diet versions of drinks. A study from the Weizmann Institute of Science presents a new insight into what happens when aspartame breaks down within the gut, suggesting that it causes disruptions to the neutralisation of lipopolysaccharides, harmful toxins that are produced by the bacteria found in the gut, by interfering with the enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase, which allows us to live healthily with the bacteria. Without the full functionality of this enzyme, these toxins are able to build up and damage the lining of the gut. When the intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP) was added to drinks that contain aspartame, the enzyme’s activity was found to decrease; something that did not happen when mixed with the sugary alternative of the drink. Tests on mice involving the insertion of aspartame into the intestine, found that levels of intestinal alkaline phosphatase halved when the sweetener was injected.

However, an increase in weight while consuming products containing aspartame was only evidenced when also eating a diet high in fat. Mice that were injected with aspartame while on a fatty diet where found to have gained more weight than mice that weren’t. Furthermore, regardless of diet type, mice that had been fed aspartame presented higher blood sugar levels, which is a sign of diabetes. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame have previously been found to alter the processes of the bacteria communities in the gut, which has the potential to cause problems with glucose control. If this is the case then aspartame would prove ineffective as a way to reduce weight, instead vastly increasing the possibility of piling on the pounds.

Although this may be the end of pretending that diet coke is healthy-ish, it is not all bad news. If a decrease in IAP is found to cause diabetes, then giving sufferers a supplement of the enzyme could prove to be a possible treatment.

Either way, this research certainly does not mean we should abandon all sugar free foodstuffs, as it only applies to aspartame which is the only sweetener found to block IAP so far. Also, as students, it is important to know that diet drinks as mixers get you twenty-five per cent more drunk than their sugary alternative, which for some of us on a Wednesday night may well be worth the possible weight gain!

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