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Can switching from sugar to diet drinks reduce health risks?

8 May 2018
Study explores if it’s possible to reverse damage caused by sugar
A University of Sydney study that models a sugar to diet beverage switch in rats suggests swapping to artificially sweetened beverages may help improve metabolic and cognitive impairments that result from too much sugar.

The study, published in Physiology and Behaviour, includes two experiments designed to assess the effect on female rats of switching to either water or an artificially sweetened saccharin-based solution following unrestricted access to a sucrose-based sugar solution.

Co-author Dr Kieron Rooney said the results were largely positive with both the groups that switched to water or artificial sweetener recovering abilities they had lost as a result of excessive sugar consumption.

Yet he notes the capacity to recover may be dependent on the amount of time spent consuming sugar before quitting.

“In the first experiment where rats consumed sugar for only four weeks before switching, the rats were protected against the reduced insulin sensitivity that accompanies prolonged consumption of sugar,” said Dr Rooney from the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Charles Perkins Centre.

“In the second experiment when rats were consuming sugar for longer, they only partially recovered insulin sensitivity yet total body fat was reduced and rats regained the ability to remember the location of an object.”

Insulin sensitivity determines how the body responds to insulin and in turn how much insulin is needed to maintain suitable blood sugar levels.

At the end of Experiment 2, the groups switched to water or artificial sweetener both recorded a similar metabolic profile in terms of weight gain, insulin sensitivity and body fat. On some measures they did not differ from the rats that had never been given the sugar solution.

Although the results can’t be directly applied to humans the researchers suggest the study is important because it replicates the switch from sugar to artificial sweetener, which is how sweeteners like saccharin are marketed.

Senior author Emeritus Professor Bob Boakes from the Faculty of Science said it’s generally accepted that high consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is a risk factor for weight gain and associated metabolic diseases. However, there is ongoing debate about whether this risk is reduced by switching to artificially sweetened beverages.

“Given the controversy over diet drinks, it’s notable that switching from sugar to a solution containing an artificial sweetener like saccharin produced the same improvement as switching from sugar to water,” said Professor Boakes.

"Furthermore the consumption of the artificial sweetener in an animal with prior exposure to sugar did not result in the overconsumption of food and subsequent weight gain as is often predicted."

Dr Rooney said, “Our data suggests that the capacity to recover from the damage caused by excess sugar consumption is influenced by the amount of damage or length of exposure.”

“So while it is important to reduce sugar consumption to improve health, the benefits are likely to be greater if we can get children and young adults to quit before some irreparable damage is caused.”

The researchers caution that similar results were not found in previous studies with male rats and say further research is needed to explore the potentially protective effect of estrogen on diet.

The study was supported by Australian Research Council discovery grants.

Research involving animals at the University of Sydney is approved by an Animal Ethics Committee, in accordance with the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes.