Drinking diet (or sugar free) fizzy drinks during pregnancy makes women more likely to give birth to overweight children, according to research from the University of Manitoba in Canada.
The researchers found that mothers who drink sugar free, artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy are twice as likely to have an overweight baby by the age of 12 months.
The findings suggest the possibility that children who are exposed to artificial sweeteners in the womb could develop a sweet tooth, leading them to eat foods higher in calories — but cautioned that this was not a biological study, and that they had merely observed a link.
Previous research on rats revealed that babies whose mothers were fed artificial sweeteners also demonstrated a preference for sweet foods, and gained more weight.
The study of 3,000 mothers, published in the journal JAMA Paediatrics, reports that 30 per cent of mothers drink artificially sweetened drinks, such as diet versions of soft drinks, or tea and coffee with sweeteners. Five per cent reported drinking them every day, and the children of these women were twice as likely to be overweight at one year old compared to those who never consume diet drinks.
The study’s lead author said: ‘To our knowledge, our results provide the first human evidence to support these findings, suggesting that prenatal non-nutritive sweeteners exposure may contribute to infant weight gain and early childhood obesity.’
Artificially sweetened beverages have been sold by the soft drinks industry as a ‘healthier alternative’. They may contain fewer calories than sugary drinks but what isn’t clearly known is the role artificial sweeteners play in how the body regulates sugar and fat storage. There are suggestions that they work in much the same way as sugar.
This small cohort study is a first in this area and its findings should be interpreted with some caution for now. Only 120 out of the 3,300 mothers had a high intake of diet soft drinks. The chance for an anomaly to skew this data is significant. Other factors, such as genetics and lifestyle, may have explained the babies’ weight gain. However, the study does pick out a trend which calls for further study.
It is important to note, as the study highlights, that guidance on artificial sweeteners for pregnant women is scant, despite there being advice against their consumption by children. A revision of this advice may be advisable.
Research score: 2/5