So Diet Beverages Are Better, Right? Not So Fast!

Authored by Michael A Dedekian, MD, Medical Advisor to Let’s Go! and Director of Countdown to A Healthy ME Clinic.

Non-nutritive Sweetener Graphic
I regard 5-2-1-0 as an essential prescription for healthy living. “0” helps us all remember to eliminate sugary drinks. Almost all of my patients have been able to improve their health by switching from juices and sodas to water and low fat milk.

Many families ask me if switching to sugar-free sodas, juices and drink mixes is ok. It is true that sugar substitutes (called “nonnutritive sweeteners”) don’t have any significant calories. In that sense it is better to switch to drinks with nonnutritive sweeteners than to keep drinking liquids with regular sugar. However, many of the children I see have trouble switching to water because they are used to drinks being sweet. This worries me.

Another problem is that the chemicals that make up nonnutritive sweeteners may not be healthy.

Recent research studies have identified that taste receptors for sweetness, in addition to being found on our tongues, are also present in our intestines. This means that our digestive system is sensitive to sugar. When nonnutritive sweeteners enter our intestines they activate sweet receptors just like regular sugar. As a result, the intestinal hormones that help control our weight and appetite might be affected.

Drinking nonnutritive sweeteners is associated with increased weight and type 2 diabetes. This doesn’t mean that they cause weight gain, a link that remains under study. Still, these associations raise my level of concern.

Nonnutritive sweeteners are chemicals that may have negative health effects. My view is that they have not been studied in enough detail for me to recommend them, especially for young and growing children. We’re lucky in this country to have access to clean water. There’s no question we’d be healthier if we drank more of it!

For more information visit the Harvard School of Public Health’s article: Sugary Drinks or Diet Drinks: What’s the Best Choice?

For more information about making healthier beverage choices, check out the “0” message materials on our Parent Resources Page.

This blog post is brought to you by Let’s Go! Healthcare, generously funded by Harvard Pilgrim Foundation’s Growing up Healthy Initiative.