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Diet drinks could increase diabetes risk, study says

A new twist in the heated discussion on diet drinks emerged last week.

Research published in the well-respected journal Nature suggests non-caloric artificial sweeteners (NAS) could change the bacterial composition of our guts and increase diabetes risk. Studies on whether diet drinks help or hinder weight loss, encourage or discourage a sweet tooth and promote or decrease diabetes risk have been all over the map. Many leading health organizations support the use of NAS for weight and diabetes management. But looking at the gut is a new take on this old debate.

The paper in Nature described experiments in mice and men. Lean mice were fed saccharin, sucralose and aspartame for 11 weeks. These mice were compared to mice drinking either plain water or water and sugar. The NAS-receiving mice developed glucose intolerance whereas the sugar drinking mice did not. Saccharin had the strongest negative impact on glucose intolerance. A study of their feces showed a change in the composition and function of the gut bacteria. They had more of the bacteria that are associated with metabolic disorders.

These same researchers fed seven lean volunteers, who did not use NAS, the maximum acceptable dose of artificial sweeteners for a week. Four became glucose intolerant and their gut microbiomes made an unhealthy shift. The other three had no change. Gut bacteria is a relatively new area of research and this is the first work to suggest that non- caloric sweeteners are exacerbating metabolic diseases through changes in gut bacteria. The human study was small and short but intriguing.

A balanced gut is a foundation for a health. I regularly counsel clients to eat more of the foods that promote healthy gut bacteria. These include fermented foods, onions, garlic, asparagus and artichokes as well as most high fiber fruits and veggies. Alternatives to diet soda are seltzer with a splash of fruit juice, adding a slice of citrus or cucumber to your bottled water and enjoying a refreshing iced herbal tea.

Sheah Rarback is a registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine. Follow her on Twitter @sheahrarback.