Soda consumption has been mightily scorned as one of the major causes of our nation’s obesity epidemic – studies are quite conclusive that sugary soda consumption is linked with increased obesity and many of its metabolic ailments – cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. It is no surprise, since there are a whopping 10 teaspoons of sugar are in each 12 ounce can. It has the sweet combination of lots of calories, loads of sugar and is completely devoid of nutritional value. You are quickly packing on the calories with each sweet sip.
So pat yourself on your back if you have dropped the high-sugar, high-calorie soft drinks for the diet alternative. Zero calories and zero harm, correct? Not so fast. It would be somewhat refreshing as a nutrition professional to recommend something other than water, tea, coffee, and seltzer as no or low-calorie alternatives. But I can’t and here is why.
Diet sodas are loaded with artificial sweeteners and that may mean several things for your health. We do not yet know the long term consequences of consuming artificial sweeteners (like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin) over long periods of time. Animals studies have demonstrated that consuming high doses of these substances do not fare so well, but the doses often given in these types of studies are well beyond what we would drink in a day or week – even with a terrible diet soda habit. But human research studies are beginning to emerge demonstrating associations between diet soda consumption and chronic disease risk. A recent study in nearly 60,000 post-menopausal women found that women who consumed 2 or more diet drinks per day were 30% more likely to suffer from some sort of heart disease and 50% more likely to die from heart disease over the 10 year study period compared with women who consumed only a few per month or none. While this is only an association and does not indicate that drinking soda causes heart disease (other factors linked with consumption such as unhealthy diet habits and smoking may also be driving this risk), it has researchers scrambling to better understand this association.
Research from Johns Hopkins using the National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES) indicates that 22% of obese and 19% of overweight adults report consuming diet beverages, while only 11% of healthy-weight adults report consuming them. One might infer from these numbers that overweight/obese individuals are more likely to consume diet beverages to help minimize calorie intake or conversely that there is something about diet sodas that may have caused overweight/obese consumers to pack on the extra pounds. But what is interesting is that the overweight and obese adults who consume diet drinks consume more daily calories than overweight/obese adults who drink regular sugar-sweetened beverages.
So does consumption of diet drinks lead to more eating? It is exactly these types of aforementioned associational studies that have led researchers to try and understand if there is something about the artificial sweeteners that results in hunger and cravings for more sweet foods. Some studies have demonstrated that the “sweetness” in diet sodas is actually confusing our brains. A diet soda tastes sweet, but is not giving our brains the satisfaction that we have truly consumed something sweet. What this suggests then is that we will then seek out additional sweet foods – which will increase our calorie load. More calories in and more potential for excess weight gain.
The science is not yet conclusive on diet drinks – but it is clear that they are not a panacea for weight loss and could even have the potential to do harm. You know that you should be avoiding highly processed and packaged foods for your health and body weight control. Common sense should also tell us that artificially sweetened drinks are also not chalk full of health benefits – natural whole foods are what we should be striving for and that includes beverages. Steer clear, eat clean, and avoid the excess “sweet” in any form.