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“Sugar-free” drinks – are they really healthy?

Portfolio politics

Louise Newson

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

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fizzy drink_shutterstock_544883317.jpgAt the beginning of a new year, many people will be looking at their diets and trying to improve them. Last year, the sugar / fat debate resulted in fats winning. There is increasing evidence that “good” fats such as those found in olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados are really healthy and important for us. Sugar in processed foods (and also in low-fat foods) is not good for us, as well as being very addictive there is good evidence to support that the high sugar and low fat diets of the past two decades or so has been a major contributor to the current obesity epidemic. About 75% of all processed foods and beverages contain added sugar which is such a huge proportion.

The amount of fizzy drinks consumed by people in the UK is staggering. Apparently an average 5-year-old in the UK drinks around a bath tub full of fizzy drinks in one year!

I was really interested to read that diet drinks are actually no healthier than sugary versions, according to a new paper.* More than half of soft drinks sold in the UK are now low-calorie; the increase is likely to be a result of clever advertising which informs people that they are a healthier option. Other research has shown that people who are overweight or obese drink more sugar-free drinks than people who are a healthy weight. In addition, studies have found those people who indulge in at least one diet drink a day gain at least three inches to their waistlines compared to those who do not consume these drinks.

People who switch to sugar-free fizzy drinks are more likely to eat more because they feel they are healthy and they are still likely to crave sweet foods. 

There is a big move by companies to promoting sugar-free drinks currently, in view of the sugary drinks tax which is to be introduced next year.

The paper concludes that the absence of consistent evidence to support the role of artificially sweetened beverages in preventing weight gain and the lack of studies on other long-term effects on health strengthen the position that these drinks should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet. I could not agree more!

* Borges MC, Louzada ML, de Sá TH, et al. Artificially Sweetened Beverages and the Response to the Global Obesity Crisis. PLoS Med, published 3 January 2017.

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Louise Newson

Louise is a part-time GP in Solihull, as well as a writer for numerous medical publications, including She is an Editor and Reviewer for e-learning courses for the RCGP. She is an Editor for Geriatric Medicine journal and the British Journal of Family Medicine. Louise has contributed to various healthcare articles in many different newspapers and magazines and is the spokesperson for The Information Standard. She has also done television and radio work. Louise is a medical consultant for Maverick TV and has participated regularly in ‘Embarrassing Bodies Live from the Clinic’. Louise has three young children and is married to a consultant urological surgeon. Although her spare time is limited she enjoys practising ashtanga yoga regularly and loves road cycling – she has raised over £2K for a local charity, Molly Olly Wishes by competing in a 120km cycle ride!

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