Frater has actually lost weight since kicking her 12 Diet Cokes a day habit. Picture: ED JONES
IT was a thirst she could not quench, a craving she just had to satisfy. And, no matter how often 27-year-old Angela Frater from Bo'ness got her fix, she just wanted and needed more.
"It got to the point where I was surviving on just three hours' sleep a night," recalls the team manager. "But I liked the buzz so much and nothing else seemed to work."
But her "addiction" wasn't alcohol, drugs or even gambling. It was a seemingly innocuous substance, one which is now being blamed for a myriad of health problems – diet fizzy drinks.
With Cadbury launching low-calorie confectionery, and low-carbohydrate, low-sugar sweets cropping up everywhere from the local newsagent and supermarket to high-end stores such as Harvey Nichols, you'd be forgiven for assuming that low-calorie equalled healthy. However, with US scientists recently warning that low calorie-drinks may actually increase the risk of putting on weight, it seems this is no longer the case.
Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana recently suggested that those who drink diet drinks with artificial sweeteners such as saccharine tend to overcompensate and consume more calories than those who don't.
Their study also concluded that these artificial sweeteners could well change the body's ability to regulate how many calories it consumes by breaking the connection between a sweet sensation and high-calorie food.
Sweet tastes signal calories and when that link is broken, the body's ability to judge calorie intake may be lessened.
Danish researchers also found last year that drinking large volumes of fizzy drinks may weaken your bones, as the body attempts to neutralise acid caused by the drink's carbon dioxide with calcium.
"I think psychologically I thought it was okay to maybe eat a bit more and treat myself to something because I was drinking a diet drink," admits Angela, who went on to lose 6lbs in just three weeks after giving up her 12-can a day Diet Coke vice.
"The diet drink almost cancelled out something bad, so I would snack more."
Angela's story is all too familiar to the Capital's health experts, who realised years ago that artificial sweeteners are counterproductive.
"Outsmarting your body by swapping high-calorie sugar for zero-calorie sweetener sounds a simple way to lose weight, but the human body isn't simple and this approach makes things worse," says Emma Conroy of Edinburgh Nutrition, who has a range of overweight patients who used to consume "light" yoghurts, diet drinks and low-calorie instant soups in the belief they were healthier.
"One theory is that if we eat sweet foods that turn out to have zero nutritive value, our bodies not unreasonably stop associating sweetness with calories. So when we encounter real sugar, we eat much more than we otherwise would."
Lou Johnston, a nutritionist with Tonic Health on Commercial Street in Leith, also has a wide range of patients who lived off low-calorie, low-sugar foods and drinks. She agrees: "We try and get people off fizzy drinks as it plays with their blood sugar levels, even if the calories are less.
"Your body has a natural metabolic process when it comes to processing normal sugar which involves glucose in the pancreas and insulin levels. But the body doesn't recognise the chemicals replacing sugar. So if you have something that's 200 times sweeter than sugar, there is bound to be a reaction. Studies have shown that people with weight issues have a real difficulty shifting weight if they consume lots of fizzy drinks. They are focusing on calories and not getting a wider perspective on nutrition."
And let's face it, guzzling chemicals is never a good thing, as former diet drink lover Angela found out the hard way.
"I felt bloated all the time, I was constantly hyper and was always on a high. Every single day and night. I couldn't sleep at night and during the day I struggled to stay awake and concentrate – so I would reach for another Diet Coke. I liked the fizz. Nothing else seemed to work and I hated the thought of water."
Finally, after more than ten years drinking Diet Coke and seeing water or fresh juices as insipid, Angela visited her doctor three weeks ago, who told her immediately to cut out all artificial sweeteners and caffeine.
"It was very hard to stop straight away and I craved it a lot," she admits. "I was very moody and crabby for the first week, then I was okay. I've only had one can in the past three weeks and I've started drinking water and juices instead. I do still miss it but it will change through time. And, if I want something fizzy I now have sparkling water.
"Since I've stopped, the change has been huge – I'm much calmer, I feel much better and I can sleep and concentrate. I want different foods now too – I cook for myself and eat a more varied diet. I just can't believe how different I feel. And I've lost a bit of weight since I stopped, although I did nothing different – I didn't even exercise or diet."
THE AGE OF SWEET INNOCENCE IS AT AN END
FOR years we've been told that switching from sugar to artificial sweeteners is good for us. But in 2004, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed the soaring use of a "super-sweetener" called high fructose corn syrup was followed by a surge in weight problems, and that it does not suppress appetite in the way other sugars do. And so the body's mechanism for controlling food intake could malfunction.
Here is the lowdown on some of the most popular man-made sweeteners:
• Saccharin: It was banned in Canada in 1997, until recently carried a warning label in the States and there are legal limits on the levels that may be used in soft drinks because it's been linked with bladder cancer in laboratory experiments. The UK Government's daily limit is just under half a gramme for an adult weighing 10-12st.
• Aspartame: A whopping 200 times sweeter than sugar, it's thought to be the most widely used artificial sweetener in the UK. Also known as NutraSweet, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) investigated claims it is linked with brain cancer and ruled that it is safe.
The FSA recommends a maximum daily intake of 2.8g per adult – the equivalent of around 14 cans of fizzy drink. It's reportedly used in Diet Coke, Wrigley's chewing gum and Candarel.
• Cyclamate: This chemical sweetener has been linked with damage to fertility and the Food Standards Agency has advised parents to limit the consumption of drinks containing this. Found commonly in budget squashes and is often labelled as cyclamic acid or E952.
• Acesulfame K: Also 200 times sweeter than sugar, it's similarly widely used.
• Sucralose: This newcomer, known as Splenda, is made from sugar through a chemical process that boosts the flavour by a staggering 600 per cent. It's found in Ocean Spray cranberry drink.