Study results appearing in the International Journal of Epidemiology highlight these observations in comparison to children whose mothers had gestational diabetes and drank water instead.
The study’s authors believe pregnant women could replace sugar-sweetened soft drinks and juices with artificial sweetened drinks to compensate for the increase in amniotic fluid volume but also to cut down on calories.
“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 senior author, Dr Cuilin Zhang, researcher based at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).
"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 seven."
Despite efforts made in some European countries to curb weight gain and obesity, the prevalence of more severe forms continue to increase among certain subgroups.
Babies born to women with gestational diabetes (GDM), the most common metabolic pregnancy complication affecting approximately 16% of pregnancies worldwide, is one such subgroup.
Studies have indicated its occurrence as an example in which to study the early origins of obesity.
In addition, mounting evidence has related nutritional anomalies during pregnancy to foetal development and obesity risk in later life.
Led by Dr Zhang, the team looked at data collated from 1996 to 2002 that was based on the Danish National Birth Cohort (DNBC), a longitudinal cohort of 101 042 pregnancies (91 827 women) in Denmark.
Only mothers that experienced gestational diabetes was considered in this study – a figure that exceeded 900 in total.
The mothers-to-be filled in a food-based questionnaire at the 25th week of pregnancy. The children's birth weight was noted, as was their weight at seven years old.
Results found that roughly 9% of these women drank at least one artificially sweetened drink per day.
Compared to children born to women who never drank sweetened beverages, these children were 60% more likely to have a high birth weight. At age seven, these children were nearly twice as likely to be overweight or obese.
Additional results pointed to no significant advantages of consuming an artificially sweetened drink.
Children age seven, who were born in either group and equally likely to be overweight or obese had a 17% reduced risk of obesity if their mothers substituted water for sweetened beverages.
No proven cause and effect
Despite the findings, the team could not explain why consuming artificially sweetened drinks compared to drinking water may increase obesity risk.
“In the present study, the positive associations were pronounced at birth and extended to 7 years but not during infancy,” the study commented.
“The discordant findings in age-specific associations could be partially attributable to the difference in the underlying study population and offspring growth pattern.”
They added that while they could account for other influencers of weight gain, such as breastfeeding, diet and physical activity levels, the study could not definitively prove that maternal artificially sweetened beverage consumption caused the children to gain weight.
Only one similar study to date is comparable in which the associations between maternal artificially sweetened beverage and sugar sweetened beverage consumption during pregnancy were noted along with offspring growth at 1 year.
The study found that maternal consumption of artificial sweeteners during pregnancy may influence infant body mass index (BMI).
ISA thoughts to study
In response to the recent findings the International Sweeteners Association (ISA) were adamant low calorie sweeteners can be consumed by pregnant women, with or without gestational diabetes, to help them reduce overall calorie and sugar intake without increasing the risk of obesity later in childhood.
The association argued that the findings were actually based on a small group of 85 women with gestational diabetes who consumed low calorie sweetened drinks daily.
“Surprisingly, no association was found with the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages,” they said.
“The possibility of residual confounding due to other pre- or postnatal obesogenic factors cannot be ruled out, especially since recent evidence shows that developmental pathways to adiposity begin even before birth and are influenced by environmental, genetic and epigenetic factors,” they continued.
“The study provides no evidence about, how consumption of low calorie sweetened beverages during pregnancy by women with gestational diabetes, but not sugar-sweetened drinks, would influence risk of overweight/obesity later in childhood.
“Any microbiome-related mechanism is speculative and the sweet-but-no-calories theory is unlikely to apply because the offspring/ child is not consuming the low calorie sweetened drink.
Source: International Journal of Epidemiology
Published online ahead of print: doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyx095
“Maternal consumption of artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy, and offspring growth through 7 years of age: a prospective cohort study.”
Authors: Yeyi Zhu et al.