Maybe it’s no secret that social drinking can put on the pudge. Calories from hard liquor can add up quickly, making many drinkers more inclined to order diet mixers to keep the calorie count down. But before ordering up that rum with Diet Coke, it’s time to weigh the pros with the cons. A study suggestsdiet, artificially-sweetened mixers may elevate intoxication levels more than their sugar-filled counterparts.

What’s the Deal?

The study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, was conducted by researchers at Northern Kentucky University. Participants (eight men and eight women between the ages of 21 and 33) attended three research sessions where they received vodka combined with either regular citrus flavored soda, the diet version of the citrus-flavored soda, or a placebo. The researchers administered a Breathalyzer test to record the participants’ breath alcohol concentrations (BrACs). Then participants answered subjective questions like perceived intoxication, fatigue, impairment, and willingness to drive. After the participants reported how they felt, researchers had them perform a timed computer task to test their reaction time. So what happened at the lab happy hour? Though participants were unaware of any differences in how boozed-up they felt, BrACs were significantly higher for those who consumed the diet beverage cocktail (up to 18 percent). The diet drinkers also showed higher levels of impairment for the computer task. Another interesting finding had to do with gender. The women, who studies show are more likely to consume diet cola mixed drinks than men, had higher BrACsFueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. Fowler, S.P., Williams, K., Resendez, R.G., et al. Department of Medicine, Division of Clinical Epidemiology, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas. Obesity, 2008 Aug;16(8):1894-900..

Is It Legit?

Science says probably. How is it even possible that a non-alcoholic mixer could affect how drunk we get? Research shows that peoples’ breath alcohol concentration is influenced by all sorts of factors such as sleep, hydration, and if we’ve exercised that day. One major factor: the amount of food we have in our stomachs. With a little food chilling in the belly, alcohol can disappear from the blood at a faster rateFood-induced lowering of blood-ethanol profiles and increased rate of elimination immediately after a meal. Jones, A.W., Jonsson, K.A. Department of Alcohol Toxicology, University Hospital, Linkoping, Sweden. Journal of Forensic Science, 1994 Jul;39(4):1084-93.. Long story short, mixers that have sugar and calories may have a similar effect to food. Previous research has shown that diet, artificially-sweetened beverages have resulted in higher levels of intoxicationArtificial sweeteners, caffeine, and alcohol intoxication in bar patrons. Rossheim, M.E., Thombs, D.L. Department of Behavioral Science and Community Health, College of Public Health and Health Professions, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Alcoholism Clinical and Experimental Research, 2011 Oct;35(10):1891-6.. Even thougha bottle of sugar-filled cola is basically just empty calories, researchers believe it can slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.

The Takeaway

While this study showed calorie-free and sugar-free cocktails left participants feeling their drinks more than the regular version, there are a few key limitations. The study had only 16 participants, all of whom identified themselves as Caucasian. It would be interesting to see the results of this study on a much larger scale, and with a more diverse sample, as well as different doses of a multitude of alcohols and mixers (like juice, for instance). When bar-goers order a drink, diet beverages may seem like the healthier choice. But, this study might put a layer of caution tape on diet mixers,which might be more dangerous than previously thought.