If you think ordering a rum and Coke with Diet Coke rather than regular saves calories, new findings may change your mind. A Northern Kentucky University researchers discovered that mixers such as diet cola significantly increase one’s breath-alcohol content, but that drinkers didn’t notice any difference in their impairment levels.
To discover the effects of artificial sweeteners versus regularly sweetened beverages, the researchers had participants either drink vodka and Squirt (a carbonated lemon-lime soda), vodka plus Diet Squirt, or a placebo drink. The surprising results? Those given the Diet Squirt cocktail increased breath-alcohol content by 18 percent compared to the regular cocktail drinkers, the equivalent of almost an additional drink. The difference was enough to push a drinker from under the legal driving limit to being unfit to operate a vehicle.
The artificial sweeteners don’t do anything to speed up intoxication; it is sugar that slows down alcohol absorption into the bloodstream. It’s the same reason that eating food while drinking slows blood alcohol absorption. As the body works to digest food or sugary drinks, it stays in the stomach longer instead of passing into the blood.
Lead author of the study, Cecile Marczinski, commented, “One of the key things we found was that even though BAC peaked 18 percent higher in the diet condition, [participants] didn’t feel any more intoxicated and they didn’t feel any different as to how willing they were to drive a car.”
This was troubling as it suggests that drinkers can quickly become more drunk than they realize, thinking their response times and impairment levels are adequate when, in fact, the effects of alcohol are still taking place. Instead of consuming a drink within an hour, the effects of a drink without a sugary beverage are more akin to taking a shot.
This research builds on others tracking this effect, like a similar one from 2007 that studied the effects of fizzy or flat mixers. Carbonated beverages were absorbed much more quickly than flat ones such as juice, so experts advise mixing alcohol mostly with flat drinks. Another more recent study, researching the effects of energy drinks, warned that energy drinks also mask the effects of intoxication, giving drinkers a false sense that their senses are not impaired. The bottom line? Get someone else to drive if you’ve had more than a drink.