Consuming Diet Drinks During Pregnancy Increases Babies' Health Risks Long Term

Thomas Castles

Babies are larger at birth and twice as likely to be obese at age 7

Women who drink artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy are increasing the risk that their children will be born larger in size and will develop obesity during childhood, according to a new study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

NIH researchers sought out more data on the long-term impact of artificially sweetened beverage consumption during pregnancy for two reasons — first, artificial sweeteners are being produced and consumed more widely across populations, and second, women who are pregnant tend to drink more liquids in general, so they are at an increased likelihood of consuming artificially sweetened beverages.

“As the volume of amniotic fluid increases, pregnant women tend to increase their consumption of fluids. To avoid extra calories, many pregnant women replace sugar-sweetened soft drinks and juices with beverages containing artificial sweeteners,” researchers wrote.

Established research has shown that drinking artificially sweetened beverages is associated with weight gain, so researchers sought to determine if consuming these beverage during pregnancy could influence the weight of children.

“Our findings suggest that artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy are not likely to be any better at reducing the risk for later childhood obesity than sugar-sweetened beverages,” said the study’s lead author Cuilin Zhang, PhD, of the Epidemiology Branch at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “Not surprisingly, we also observed that children born to women who drank water instead of sweetened beverages were less likely to be obese by age 7.”

The NIH study reviewed data collected from the Danish National Birth Cohort on the pregnancies of more than 91,000 women in Denmark from 1996 to 2002. The NIH team of researchers limited their analysis to data from more than 900 pregnancies that were complicated by gestational diabetes.

Roughly 9% of these women said they drank at least one artificially sweetened beverage every day. The study found that among this group, children were 60% more likely to have high birth weight, compared to children born to women who never drank sweetened beverages. At age 7, children born to these mothers were almost two times as likely to be overweight or obese.

Consuming artificially sweetened beverages appeared to offer no advantages over consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, according to the study. At age 7, children born to both groups of parents were just as likely to be overweight or obese, but women who substituted water for sweetened beverages of either kind reduced their children’s obesity risk at age 7 by 17%.

Childhood obesity increases the risk for health problems later in life, like diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

Despite the correlation between mothers who drank artificially-sweetened or sugar-sweetened beverages and increased birth weight and risk of obesity at age 7, the study’s authors caution that more research is necessary to expand on current finidnigs.

“Although [we] could account for many other factors that might influence children’s weight gain, such as breastfeeding, diet and physical activity levels, [our] study couldn’t definitively prove that maternal artificially sweetened beverage consumption caused the children to gain weight,” the study read.

The authors specifically mentioned the need for studies that use more contemporary data, given the recent upward trends in the consumption of artificially sweetened beverages and the fact that the study monitored data from 1996-2002.