Trying to be health-conscious in a social setting that revolves around drinking can be hard, especially for college students. From binge drinking to chowing down on mozzarella sticks at late night, it can be difficult for Boston College students to make healthy decisions on the weekends. One attempted solution is consuming diet soda and juice as mixers, but a new study says that this decision can have unintended consequences.
Using mixers with artificial sweeteners can lead to dramatically higher blood alcohol content (BAC), and leads to the drinker being unaware of the increased intoxication, according to the study, released on Feb. 5 in an online edition of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
The study found that using diet soda instead of regular soda can increase BAC by up to 18 percent, which is basically the equivalent of having an additional drink. This is also enough to put someone over the legal limit for driving.
The study involved 18 men and women, who were each given drinks with regular sugary soda or diet soda, mixed with vodka. After drinking, their response times for performing basic tasks were tested, as well as their perception of how drunk they felt. The study found that drinkers of the diet soda had a very hard time being able to tell if they were able to drive or not. The drinkers of the diet soda mix had BACs above the legal limit and the levels stayed high the whole time, while the drinkers of the regular soda mix were found legally able to drive.
The study’s lead author, Cecile Marczinski, an assistant professor of psychology at Northern Kentucky University, told Time that this is the most dangerous finding of the report. Diet soda drinkers are unaware of their levels of intoxication.
“They are more impaired on the computer task, measured both by reaction time and errors,” Marczinski said about diet soda drinkers. “You shouldn't trust your own judgment of impairment. In one case, the subjects were safe to drive and legal, and in the other case, they were not, but they had no idea.”
The reason for higher intoxication is the way that the body reacts to higher calorie drinks. The stomach will react to sugary drinks as if they are food, which makes the body work to digest the calories. Having calories (sugar) slows the absorption of alcohol. Eating solid food before drinking also lowers BAC by 20 percent to 57 percent.
With diet soda, in contrast, Marczinski said, “The stomach doesn't recognize that it needs to do anything with that drink, because it has no sugar. It goes right to the small intestine where the most alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream.”
Maczinkski said that the most important takeaway from this study is the importance of knowing that your body can react unexpectedly. “The key thing is to be aware of this phenomenon,” she said.