Researchers out of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg looked at 3,000 mother-infant pairs for the study. Pregnant women were asked to fill out questionnaires about how often they imbibed certain drinks like diet soda or tea or coffee with artificial sweetener added, as well as sugar-sweetened drinks, such as regular soda or coffee or tea with regular sugar or honey added. Then the BMI of their babies was measured at one year of age.
Infants of women who drank artificially sweetened beverages daily during pregnancy were found to be twice as likely to be overweight. Interestingly, no correlation was found between pregnant women who drank beverages sweetened with sugar during pregnancy and overweight infants.
Explains lead researcher Meghan B. Azad, Ph.D.,"We didn't find an independent association with the sugar-sweetened beverages but we did find an association with total calorie consumption. Before correcting for total calories, we did see a pattern where more sugar-sweetened beverages were associated with a higher risk of overweight in the infants. So, sugar-sweetened beverages do appear to have an impact, but this is explained by the calories they contain."
In other words, this study is saying sugary drinks are not great for pregnant women either.
But why are artificial sweeteners so potentially detrimental to a developing baby's future health? According to CBS News, Azad offered a few theories as to why the fake stuff could be as bad, or worse, than good old-fashioned sugar:
"There is some evidence that consuming artificial sweeteners at least in adults changes the microbiome. We know that our gut bacteria are important for a variety of health issues, including our metabolism. Bacteria help us digest the food we eat and they play a role in how much calories we extract from that food. And so if these artificial sweeteners are changing the mom's microbiome, which then gets passed on to the baby, that might be one mechanism." She added, "Our bodies have evolved to respond to sugar in a certain way, and some of these responses are triggered by the perception of sweet taste. With artificial sweeteners, we get the perception of sweet taste without any actual sugar to metabolize. There's some evidence in adults that routinely consuming artificial sweeteners may disrupt or 'reprogram' our metabolism, leaving us more at risk for obesity and related complications."
It's important to note this study shows only a link between consuming artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy and infants' higher BMIs, not a cause-and-effect relationship. Still, it seems until more research is done, pregnant women are relegated to drinking boring old water as the safest choice. At the very minimum, pregnant women should avoid drinking artificially sweetened beverages, and certainly shouldn't consume them on a daily basis, which kinda seems like common sense.
Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.