Should You Ditch Diet Drinks When You’re Pregnant?

Should you say goodbye to your favorite diet soda? (Photo: Levi Brown/Trunk Archive)

Soda isn’t health food, we all know that. Still, many soda lovers, who want to keep their sugar and calorie consumption in check, opt for diet versions of their favorite soft drinks. But are there times in life when you should forego soda altogether? New research points to yes, going as far as to say that drinking any kind of soda is a really bad idea for pregnant women — and could negatively impact the future health of the unborn child.

The study, which was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, analyzed data collected from 1996 to 2002 by the Danish National Birth Cohort which studied the pregnancies of 91,000 women in Denmark. As part of the research, the women completed a detailed questionnaire during their 25th week of pregnancy about what foods they had eaten while pregnant. Once these women gave birth, their children’s birth rate was recorded and their weight was recorded again when the child reached seven years old.

Researchers in the new study from the International Journal of Epidemiology looked at 900 women from the original Danish study, all of whom had gestational diabetes (i.e. diabetes that occurs only in pregnancy) and found a link between drinking diet soda while pregnant and childhood obesity. About nine percent of the women said they drank at least one artificially sweetened drink during their pregnancy — and those women gave birth to children who were 60 percent more likely to have a high birth weight, compared to children born to women who never drank sweetened beverages. By the time the children of the women who drank sweetened beverages reached seven years old, they were nearly twice as likely to be overweight or obese as the kids whose moms didn’t have sweetened drinks during pregnancy.

While people tend to view diet sodas as healthier than regular sodas, research found that there were no advantages to having one over the other — by age seven, kids born to women who had either type of drink were more likely to be overweight or obese compared to those whose mothers weren’t soda drinkers.

Jessica Shepherd, MD, an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of Minimally Invasive Gynecology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago, told Yahoo Beauty that she’s not surprised by the findings. Diet sodas have been linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in adults, she points out, so it makes sense that it would have an impact on a developing fetus as well. “If you drink soda during pregnancy, you’re not necessarily just putting an individual at risk, you’re also putting their baby at risk for childhood obesity, which is the gateway condition for heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome,” she said.

Artificial sweeteners can negatively impact the way a person’s body breaks down glucose, i.e. sugar, increasing a person’s risk of gaining weight, and New York-based RD Jessica Cording told Yahoo Beauty that it’s “not surprising” that they may also affect a woman’s fetus as well. That’s part of the reason why Shepherd recommends that her patients don’t have sodas at all during pregnancy. “Water is the best choice ever,” she says.

But Jonathan Schaffir, MD, an ob/gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Yahoo Beauty that there may be other factors at play. For example, a pregnant woman who likes to regularly drink diet soda may have a sweet tooth, and therefore be more likely to indulge in other less healthy foods that can contribute to weight gain and obesity. Diet sodas can also distort a person’s tastebuds and cause them to crave more sugar, which can make a person eat more calories than they would otherwise.

Schaffir says pregnant women are probably OK to have a little soda here and there but points out that water is really best.

If you can’t imagine giving up your soda habit entirely during pregnancy, Cording recommends cutting back gradually, like switching from a 20 ounce bottle to a 12 ounce can, and eventually substituting in seltzer with a squeeze of lemon or lime. “A lot of people drink diet soda, and it can be hard to give it up,” she said.

It’s worth noting that researchers didn’t find that drinking diet soda during pregnancy directly causes childhood obesity — only that there’s a significant link between the two. However, they point out, the link is strong enough that pregnant women should think twice before reaching for soda, diet or otherwise.

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