Are Artificially Sweetened Beverages Driving Childhood Obesity?

Beverage consumption during pregnancy could affect the weight of offspring.

During pregnancy, mothers are instructed to curb their intake of unhealthy foods and drinks, including soda and sugary beverages. As an alternative, many individuals consume artificially sweetened diet beverages, which are low in calories and sugar.

However, consuming diet beverages during pregnancy may actually result in an increased risk of overweight or obese offspring, according to a study published by the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The authors of the study discovered that women with gestational diabetes who drank diet beverages during pregnancy are more likely to have children who are overweight or obese by age 7 compared with children born to mothers with gestational diabetes who drank water.

Childhood obesity has been linked to the development of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancers later in life.

During pregnancy, when the volume of amniotic fluid increases, women tend to increase fluid consumption. To avoid excess calories, many replace sugared beverages with artificially-sweetened beverages.

The authors aimed to determine whether the consumption of diet beverages during pregnancy affects the weight of children later in life.

Included in the study were data from 900 pregnant women with gestational diabetes included in the Danish National Birth Cohort from 1996 to 2002. At 25 weeks, participants completed a questionnaire about food intake. Data about children’s birth weight and at age 7 were also collected.

The authors reported that 9% of women consumed at least 1 artificially sweetened beverages per day. Children born to these mothers were 60% more likely to have a high birth weight compared with children born to women who did not drink the beverages, according to the study.

At age 7, children born to mothers who drank the beverages were nearly twice as likely to be overweight and obese.

Interestingly, the authors observed that consuming artificially sweetened beverages was not more beneficial than sugar-sweetened beverages. At age 7, the rates of overweight and obesity were similar among both cohorts.

However, women who drank water instead of sweetened beverages reduced the risk of their child developing obesity at age 7 by 17%, according to the study.

It is currently unknown why drinking artificially sweetened beverages may increase the risk of obesity compared with water.

The authors point to an animal study that suggests weight gain was linked to changes in gut bacteria. Another animal study found that artificial sweeteners could increase the intestinal absorption of blood glucose. Additional studies suggested that artificial sweeteners desensitize the digestive tracts of animals, making them more likely to overeat.

Despite the findings, additional studies are needed to make firm conclusions about artificially sweetened beverages and childhood obesity. Other factors, such as breastfeeding, diet, and physical activity, could be responsible for the findings, according to the study. Specifically, more studies including contemporary data are needed, as more individuals are consuming the beverages.

The authors also call for further studies about the effects of artificially sweetened beverages in certain racial and ethnic groups.

“Our 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,” said senior study author, Cuilin Zhang, PhD. “Not surprisingly, we also observed that children born to women who drank water instead of sweetened beverages were less likely to be obese by age 7.”