People over age 65 who drink diet soda daily tend to expand their waistlines by much more than peers who prefer other beverages, possibly contributing to chronic illnesses that go along with excess belly fat, according to a new study.
The findings raise concerns about the safety of chronic diet soda consumption, which may increase belly fat and contribute to greater risk of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases.
Metabolic syndrome – a combination of risk factors that may lead to high blood Type 2 diabetes and heart disease – is one of the results of the obesity epidemic.
In an effort to combat obesity, many adults try to reduce sugar and calorie intake by turning to artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose. Previous research shows that in the past 30 years, artificial sweeteners and diet soft drinks intake have increased, yet the prevalence of obesity has also seen a dramatic increase in the same time period.
Many of the studies exploring diet soft drink consumption and cardiometabolic diseases have focused on middle-aged and younger adults. This research has directly associated drinking soft drinks that replace sugar with artificial sweeteners and increased risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome and preterm birth.
The current study sought to fill the age gap by exploring the adverse health effects of diet soft drink intake in individuals 65 years of age and older.
For the study, researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio enrolled 749 Mexican- and European-Americans who were aged 65 and older at the start of the study (1992-96). Diet soda intake, waist circumference, height, and weight were measured at study onset and during the study. Participants were followed for a total of 9.4 years.
People who reported not drinking diet soda gained an average of 0.8 inches in waist circumference over the nine-year period compared to 1.83 inches for occasional diet soda drinkers and more than three inches for people who drank diet soda every day.
The authors had taken other factors like physical activity, diabetes and smoking into account.
People who drink diet soda may be more likely to overeat in other areas. It’s possible that switching over to diet pop allows people to rationalize having an extra slice of pizza, which translates to actually consuming more calories than would have been in a can of regular pop.
But another possibility is that there is a real causal relationship at the molecular level, which the researchers believe is the case.
Diet soft drinks are very acidic and the acidity or the artificial sweeteners may have a direct impact on things like gut microbes, which influence how we absorb nutrients.
Results of a 2014 study suggest that certain bacteria in the gut react to artificial sweeteners by secreting substances that then provoke an inflammatory response similar to a sugar overdose. The resulting reaction can interfere with the body's ability to utilize sugar. Read more about this study.
This new study conducted in older adults observed people over time; it did not test whether drinking diet soft drinks actually caused gains in abdominal fat. While the study can’t prove causality, there is consistency in findings from observational studies.
The authors recommend that older individuals who drink diet soft drinks daily, particularly those at high cardiometabolic risk, try to curb their consumption of artificially sweetened drinks.
Source: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, March 17, 2015.
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