A study of over 2,200 Canadian mothers and babies in the CHILD Cohort Study shows that a mom’s consumption of artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy may place her child at an increased risk of obesity by age three.
The research, published in the International Journal of Obesity, provides new evidence on the potentially adverse effects of artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS), which are often marketed as “healthier” alternatives to caloric sweeteners.
“Typically, we think of sugar as the ‘bad guy,’ but it turns out that replacing sugar with NNS may not be such a good idea,” said lead researcher Dr. Meghan Azad (University of Manitoba).
The findings build upon Dr. Azad’s previous CHILD research, which found prenatal NNS consumption doubled a baby’s risk of being clinically overweight by age one.
In the current study, the researchers also conducted experiments, led by Dr. Vernon Dolinsky (University of Manitoba), with mice and cell cultures to establish a causal link. In mice, they found that maternal NNS intake during pregnancy caused elevated body weight, an accumulation of body fat, and insulin resistance in the offspring, especially in males.
The study is the first of its kind to ensure the pregnant mice were given doses of NNS that were equivalent to typical human consumption. “Previous animal studies used doses that exceeded the acceptable daily intake – around the equivalent of 12 cans of diet soda per day in people,” noted Dr. Dolinsky.
Cell studies also confirmed that NNS exposure had a significant effect on increasing fat accumulation.
“By triangulating evidence from humans, mice, and cells, this study provides new evidence that maternal NNS consumption during pregnancy may program obesity risk in offspring,” said Dr. Azad.
Until further research provides more definitive answers, the researchers caution pregnant women to limit their intake of NNS. “Unsweetened drinks like water are the best option,” said Dr. Azad.