Do diet mixers get you drunk faster? Study raises new concern about drinking and driving

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

My current drink of choice when I go out is a vanilla vodka and soda water—a delightful discovery that delivers sweetness without the added calories of a sugary cola or fruit juice. But a small study indicates that a diet mixer increases breath alcohol levels more quickly than a calorie-laden one, which could make a driver more likely to be over the legal limit.

This finding published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research isn’t all that shocking. Just as food fills a person up and slows the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, so, too, would a beverage that contains calories, explained the researchers.

What was surprising was that the 16 study volunteers didn’t feel any drunker after consuming the alcohol and diet soda compared with when they drank the alcohol and regular soda—even though their breath alcohol levels were 20 percent higher.

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While the study found diet drinks had the same effect in both men and women, the Northern Kentucky University researchers were particularly concerned about women since they, like myself, tend to gravitate more towards calorie-free mixers. Women also tend to wind up with higher blood alcohol levels than men—when they drink and weigh the same amount—because their bodies have less water to dilute the alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“I am really interested in drinking and driving as a problem, so I wanted to know if the simple choice of mixer could be the factor that puts a person above or below the legal limit,” study author Cecile Marczinski said in a statement. “I also wanted to determine if any breath alcohol concentration difference would be something that subjects would notice, since this has implications for safe drinking practices, including decisions to drive.”

The bottom line here isn’t to switch to higher calorie drink mixes, not a great option for those watching their weight. But drinkers should keep in mind that those alcoholic diet drinks should be sipped slowly if they don’t want the effects of a straight shot, quick intoxication—emphasis on the toxic in that word.

If you have more than one drink, don’t drive period. It doesn’t matter whether the mixer was diet or not.