A young sportswoman has revealed how just one glass of Diet Coke could potentially leave her brain damaged.
Emma Harbage, a former England under-20 rugby player, was diagnosed with a rare condition called Phenylketonuria.
Known as PKU, sufferers – estimated to be around 6,000 in the UK – cannot digest protein or the sweetener aspartame, which is commonly used in diet drinks.
Aspartame can be toxic to the brains of PKU sufferers, with many prescribed amino-acid based supplements to make up for the loss of protein.
Emma, aged 23 and from Burntwood, Staffordshire, was diagnosed with PKU at six-days-old but despite the condition lives a full and active life.
She said: “If I hadn’t been given the medication, I probably wouldn’t be here today.
“It sounds pretty brutal but that’s how drastic the effects are.
“You obviously need plenty of carbohydrates and vegetables, while the medication provides the protein.
“Nothing really changes, in terms of my nutrition, from a game day to a normal day.
“I do have treats occasionally and it would be easy to eat sugar because it doesn’t contain protein.
“But as an athlete, that would be very restrictive so I tend to snack on fruit and veg.”
Emma now plays for her local team, Lichfield, and also for a San Francisco team called the Berkeley All Blues.
She said: “Rugby is a tough sport, both mentally and physically but I love the challenge.
“It’s obviously a male-oriented sport but we took it on and we’re doing just as well as the men now. I’m not afraid to say that because our women’s team is the best in the world.
“My dream job would be to join the Royal Air Force but when I discovered that they won’t take me because I am on permanent medication, it broke my heart.
“That’s the only time that PKU has held me back from doing anything. I’m still working on that one but sometimes things just don’t work out and that’s life.
“The way I’ve always looked at it is that things aren’t going to come to you, you have to go out and get them for yourself.
“Regardless of whether or not you suffer from a condition like PKU, you have to have that mindset otherwise you are never going to achieve your goals.”
Emma spoke out at the launch of a new drink called Green Cola, sweetened instead with Stevia, a natural plant extract and is caffeinated with green coffee beans.
She added: “It’s great that there’s now a sugar-free cola without aspartame I can drink that won’t cause me any harm.
“The arrival of Green Cola in the UK means that I can enjoy a great tasting cola as part of my diet without having to worry about aspartame.
“Up until now, I have had to avoid such drinks.”
NHS dietician Suzanne Ford added: “People with PKU are missing a very important enzyme called phenylalanine hydroxylase which means they don’t process phenylalanine properly.
“Aspartame, which is used by all the big-name cola brands, contains quite a lot of phenylalanine so it is very dangerous for people with PKU.
“Aspartame is toxic to their brains and can affect their nerves.”
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