According to a new study conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, children born to women who had gestational diabetes and drank at least one artificially sweetened beverage per day during pregnancy were more likely to be overweight or obese at age 7, compared to children born to women who had gestational diabetes and drank water instead of artificially sweetened beverages.
Childhood obesity is known to increase the risk for certain health problems later in life, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.
During pregnancy, as the volume of amniotic fluid increases, pregnant women tend to increase their consumption of fluids. To avoid extra calories, many pregnant women replace sugar-sweetened soft drinks and juices with drinks that contain artificial sweeteners.
Since prior research has implicated artificially sweetened beverages in weight gain, researchers sought to determine if drinking diet beverages during pregnancy could influence the weight of children.
The findings suggest that artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy are not likely to be any better at reducing the risk for later childhood obesity than sugar-sweetened beverages.
The researchers analyzed data collected from 1996 to 2002 by the Danish National Birth Cohort, a long-term study of pregnancies among more than 91,000 women in Denmark. At the 25th week of pregnancy, the women completed a detailed questionnaire on the foods they ate. The study also collected data on the children's weight at birth and at 7 years old.
The research team limited their analysis to data from more than 900 pregnancies that were complicated by gestational diabetes, a type of diabetes that occurs only during pregnancy.
Approximately 9 percent of these women reported consuming at least one artificially sweetened beverage each day. Their children were 60 percent more likely to have a high birth weight, compared to children born to women who never drank sweetened beverages.
Diet drinks and sugary drinks during pregnancy linked to obesity in kids by age 7
At age 7, children born to mothers who drank an artificially sweetened beverage daily were nearly twice as likely to be overweight or obese.
Consuming a daily artificially sweetened beverage appeared to offer no advantages over consuming a daily sugar-sweetened beverage. At age 7, children born to both groups were equally likely to be overweight or obese. However, women who substituted water for sweetened beverages reduced their children's obesity risk at age 7 by 17 percent.
The link between artificial sweeteners and risk of weight gain
It is not well understood why drinking artificially sweetened beverages compared to drinking water may increase obesity risk. Animal research has associated weight gain with changes in the types of bacteria and other microbes in the digestive tract.
Another animal study suggested that artificial sweeteners may increase the ability of the intestines to absorb the blood sugar glucose. Other researchers found evidence in rodents that, by stimulating taste receptors, artificial sweeteners desensitized the animals' digestive tracts, so that they felt less full after they ate and were more likely to overeat.
More research is necessary to confirm and expand on these current findings. Although they could account for many other factors that might influence children's weight gain, such as breastfeeding, diet and physical activity levels, the study does not definitively prove that maternal artificially sweetened beverage consumption caused their children to gain weight.
The authors cite the need for studies that use more recent data, given the recent upward trends in the consumption of artificially sweetened beverages.
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