Obesity may start as early as pregnancy, when a mother’s poor diet, lifestyle, or pre-existing obesity impacts her child’s growth and development. For example, research has found obese women who are pregnant may increase the risk of their babies becoming obese. It's also shown that mothers at unhealthy weights can pass their damaged DNA down to their children.

A new study chimes in on the body of evidence that details the detriments of maternal obesity on infants, focusing primarily on one aspect of mothers’ diets: consuming sodas or artificially sweetened drinks. The researchers found that drinking sugary beverages — particularly those with nonnutritive sweeteners (NNS) — during pregnancy was linked to an increased BMI in children later on.

Regular sugar can take a toll on your body, impacting nearly every organ and body part. For example, it can increase your risk of chronic heart disease, impair your memory and learning, and destroy your teeth over time. Because food and beverage companies have become privy to this, many have often switched over to using sugar replacements or artificial sweeteners like NNS, which provide no nutritional benefit and may be just as bad for you as regular sugar. Not much research has investigated the impact of NNS on pregnancy and infants, however, so researchers led by Meghan Azad at the University of Manitoba in Canada decided to take a look.

They examined 3,033 mothers as well as their infants, hoping to see how consumption of NNS impacted the babies' health and body mass index (BMI) a year later. The mothers completed food questionnaires and the babies’ BMIs were measured at after a year. Some 29.5 percent of mothers reported drinking artificially sweetened beverages during pregnancy, and about 5.1 percent of the infants were overweight. They found that mothers who consumed artificially sweetened drinks daily were more likely to have kids with a higher BMI score at 1 year old, compared to women who didn’t drink any of these beverages. Interestingly, the researchers didn’t find an association between drinking regular sugary drinks and higher BMI scores.

“To our knowledge, our results provide the first human evidence that artificial sweetener consumption during pregnancy may increase the risk of early childhood overweight,” the authors wrote. “Given the current epidemic of childhood obesity and the widespread consumption of artificial sweeteners, further research is warranted to replicate our findings in other cohorts, evaluate specific NNS and longer-term outcomes, and study the underlying biological mechanisms.”

BMI at 2 months old has been shown to be a predictor of childhood obesity later on, so if the study’s results are true, the infants with higher BMI will be more likely to become obese as they get older.

It’s important to note, however, that the study doesn’t define whether the link is a causal relationship or simply a correlation. There may also have been errors in the self-reporting nature of the study. However, the researchers believe that the results suggest more research should be done to further examine how NNS impacts the body and child development.

“Despite these caveats, the findings by Azad et al warrant attention and further research,” wrote Mark Pereira of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Matthew Gillman of Harvard Medical School in an editorial. “Experimental studies in animals and small intervention trials among pregnant women can explore mechanisms,” and further randomized clinical trials that substitute artificially sweetened beverages for sugar-sweetened beverages, or even for water, could help focus the research, they concluded.

Source: Azad M, et al. JAMA Pediatrics, 2016.