Diet colas, often marketed as a healthier alternative to regular sugar-laden sodas have been gaining popularity amongst health-conscious individuals and those looking to lose weight. However, recent studies have raised important questions about these beverages, particularly about their impact on blood sugar levels and insulin1.
Challenging the Promises of Diet Sodas
Diet colas, or diet sodas, are essentially carbonated drinks that use artificial sweeteners instead of regular sugar (sucrose). On the surface, replacing sugar with ‘zero-calorie’ sweeteners seems like a reasonable way to enjoy a fizzy drink, guilt-free2.
But, as research progresses, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these drinks may not be as innocent as they seem. A recent study posed a crucial question, “Can diet sodas raise your blood sugar levels?”1. The results were illuminating.
The study in question has opened up a new arena of understanding about the physiology of diet cola consumption and its subsequent effects on our bodies. Interestingly, the findings indicated an increased concentration of ‘saliva insulin’ following the ingestion of diet colas1.
Insulin is a critical hormone in our bodily functions. It plays a significantly crucial role in the regulation of glucose or blood sugar levels. When we consume food, particularly carbohydrates, our body releases insulin to help carry this glucose from the bloodstream into the cells, where it is used as energy or stored for later use2. Hence, an unexpected surge in insulin levels, like the one observed in this study, can upset this balance, leading to a variety of health complications.
Increased insulin levels reactively trigger the cells to absorb more glucose, which can reduce the amount of glucose in the bloodstream too much and too quickly, leading to hypoglycemia or low blood sugar2, uncomfortable and harmful. In the long term, frequent spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels caused by insulin surges can lead to insulin resistance, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes2.
But why does something that doesn’t actually contain sugar cause an increase in insulin? The answer likely lies in the sweetness of diet sodas. The artificial sweeteners used in diet colas may have zero calories, but they offer a sweetness that can fool the body into thinking that it’s consuming real sugar[^4^].
Our past and regular consumption of sweet items conditions our bodies to anticipate that sweetness equals incoming carbohydrates. Therefore, when the sweet taste of diet cola hits the tongue, the body might misconstrue it as a sugar-full product, triggering the release of insulin to prepare for the expected sugar influx[^4^].
This sensation, called a cephalic phase insulin release, is a natural metabolic response where the body releases insulin ahead of a potential rise in blood sugar. Although beneficial when consuming real sugar, in the case of diet colas – with artificial sweeteners – it can lead to unnecessary insulin production since there is no actual sugar to process[^4^].
Hence, the counterintuitive finding of increased insulin when drinking diet cola provides further evidence that our bodies don’t differentiate between actual sugar and artificially sweetened products[^4^]. The sweet taste is enough to ignite a chain of physiological responses that could potentially affect our health in the long run[^4^].
A Deeper Look into the Effects of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners have been utilized extensively in the food industry due to their lower calorie content compared to traditional sugar. They are particularly prevalent in diet beverages like colas, where they lend the same sweet taste without contributing to the drink’s caloric content. Despite theoretically being a healthier alternative, recent research has discovered some unexpected and potentially concerning effects^[4^].
Artificial sweeteners, despite their absence of actual sugar or calories, possess the power to dupe our brains into believing we’re consuming the real deal. This perception may be due to the activation of sweet taste receptors on our tongues when we consume artificially sweetened food or beverages. Our bodies are thus tricked into anticipating a sugar influx, which leads to the initiation of metabolic responses like insulin release^[4^].
The resulting physiological response is a rise in insulin production, designed to manage the expected increase in blood sugar levels from the sugar intake. However, because artificial sweeteners don’t actually supply any sugar, this leads to excess insulin in the bloodstream. Over time, repetitive unnecessary insulin production can mess with the body’s insulin regulation, potentially contributing to insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar levels^[4^].
But the effects of artificial sweeteners don’t stop there. Prolonged consumption of these non-nutritive sweeteners can potentially lead to changes in our gut microbiota – the community of bacteria that reside in our intestines. An imbalance in the gut microbiota, also known as gut dysbiosis, has been linked to various health issues, one of which is poor glucose response. This can further exacerbate an individual’s susceptibility to blood sugar imbalances and ultimately, lead to conditions like diabetes^[5^].
The impact of artificial sweeteners on gut microbiota might be due to these sweeteners’ non-digestible nature. Certain types of gut bacteria may preferentially break down these sweeteners, leading to their overgrowth and causing an imbalance in the variety and number of bacteria species in our gut^[5^].
This ‘sweet deception’, wherein the zero-calorie, zero-sugar promises of artificial sweeteners are undermined by potential negative health impacts, has led many researchers and health professionals to rethink the widely touted ‘weight-loss’ and ‘sugar-free’ benefits of diet colas.
Therefore, as consumers, it is essential to be aware that while artificial sweeteners in diet colas provide sweetness without extra calories, their consumption is not without potential consequences. Remaining mindful of these impacts and moderating intake, if choosing to consume these drinks at all, would be a prudent approach.
Despite how inviting diet colas might seem for those watching their calories or blood sugar, mounting evidence suggests these drinks might not be such a great alternative after all. They might not cause a sugar spike immediately, but their overall effects could potentially contribute to conditions like insulin resistance, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes5.
Therefore, while diet colas might seem like a convenient substitute, it’s crucial to remember the potential hidden implications and opt for healthier alternatives like water, herbal teas, or fruit-infused beverages.
- “Can diet colas raise your blood sugar levels too? New study shows rise in saliva insulin”, Indian Express, source ↩ ↩2 ↩3
- “Diet soda: Is it bad for you?” Mayo Clinic, source ↩
- “Insulin and Insulin Resistance.” Hormone Health Network, source ↩
- “The truth about artificial sweeteners.” Harvard Health Publishing, source ↩ ↩2 ↩3
- “Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, source ↩