Surveys suggest a close correlation between the rise in added-sugar consumption in recent decades—much of it from sugar-sweetened beverages—and the obesity and diabetes epidemics we’re fighting in the United States. But researchers say artificially-sweetened beverages are not necessarily a good substitute.
Over time, what you choose to drink with meals and snacks, and how much of it you drink, plays just as important a role in managing both your diabetes and your overall health as what you choose to eat. Statistics from government surveys show that half of all Americans report drinking at least one sugar-sweetened beverage a day.1
The average 12-ounce can or bottle of cola, for example, contains 155 calories and 37 g, or about 3 tablespoons, of sugar. Over the course of a year, that’s 56,575 calories and 13,505 g of added sugar from soda alone.2 That’s important because the negative health effects of occasional sugar consumption are much less dramatic than the effects of regular sugar consumption over the years.
When an international team of researchers from Japan, Finland, United Kingdom and the United States reviewed 17 relevant studies, they found that a significant number of newly diagnosed cases of type 2 diabetes may be due to drinking sugar-sweetened sodas and other beverages over time. Although fruit juices and artificially-sweetened diet sodas were not as strongly associated with onset of diabetes, the researchers concluded these are not healthful alternatives to sugar-added beverages when it comes to diabetes prevention.3
Other studies have found that, in addition to their relationship to diabetes, sugar-sweetened beverages (and foods)—including those containing fructose, sucrose (table sugar), and high-fructose corn syrup—can also help increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity, two conditions strongly associated with diabetes.1,3 Although different types of sugar are metabolized in different ways within the body, which, for instance, allows fructose to be metabolized without the use of insulin, all sugars can ultimately have a detrimental effect on your health if you consume too much. In this case, fructose is associated with increased triglycerides, the blood fats that contribute to heart disease. 1
Although the reasons are unclear, diet sodas are also associated with abdominal obesity, or large waist circumference, one of several strong risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases—diabetes, heart disease or stroke—that develop over time. 4 Some research suggests that consuming artificially-sweetened beverages and food over time actually interferes with the way our bodies learn to respond to different types of foods in order to maintain energy balance, and this, in turn, disrupts the normal process of metabolism in ways that are not unlike the results of too much sugar consumption over time. In other words, your body may be tricked into responding to artificial sweeteners as if they are actual sugars.5
Water is the most highly recommended drink for adults and children. At least one study following children found that substituting milk or water for sugar-sweetened beverages resulted in less weight gain attributable to excess body fat between the stages of early childhood and adolescence.6 Putting diet soda and other artificially-sweetened drinks and drink mixes aside, the American Diabetes Association recommends sparkling seltzer or mineral water, unsweetened iced coffee or tea, and water infused with natural flavors, such as crushed mint leaves or fresh lemon juice.7