Is Diet Soda Causing You More Harm Than Good?

Pouring a glass of cola

I am often asked what is the best choice when it comes to what to drink. More and more, people are realizing that diet sodas and artificially sweetened drinks aren’t the “free” beverage we once thought.

For a long time we thought diet sodas were harmless because they have no calories and no sugar. Sort of a “nothing” beverage choice. The evidence, though, is starting to reveal that diet sodas are more than likely not as harmless as we may have thought and not really a good, healthy choice.  Diet drinks may not only be hindering our weight loss efforts, they also may be associated with an increased risk in chronic disease.

Earlier this year study results were released that actually showed a possible link between diet soda consumption and expanding waistlines. In this study 466 people, age 65 and over, were followed for 9 years and information regarding frequency of soda intake – none, diet, or regular – was recorded throughout the 9 years. Those who consumed diet sodas every day, or more often than once a day, experienced an increase in waist circumference of over 3 inches, as compared to 1 inch in those who did not consume any diet sodas.  It is well documented that as waist circumference or belly fat increases, so does inflammation, risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cancer.

Research in other age groups has also associated drinking diet sodas made with artificial sweeteners with increased risk of diabetes, preterm birth, and metabolic syndrome – a group of risk factors that includes high blood pressure, increased blood sugars, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and increased amounts of abdominal fat (all increased risk factors for heart disease).

Another study of 3,682 individuals looked at the long-term relationship between consuming artificially sweetened drinks and weight. The participants were followed for 7-8 years and their weights were monitored. After adjusting for common factors that contribute to weight gain such as dieting, exercising change, or diabetes status, the study showed that those who drank artificially sweetened drinks had a 47% higher increase in BMI (Body Mass Index) than those who did not.

There are several factors thought to be involved with the negative impact of diet sodas. One factor is that they may actually increase people’s cravings and desire for sugar-sweetened foods and drinks. Some of this is thought to be related to artificial sweeteners being so much sweeter to the taste than natural sweeteners. Some artificial sweeteners are nearly 600 times sweeter than natural sugar. This “ultra” sweetness is thought to encourage sugar cravings and sugar dependence. Another factor is possibly that people who drink diet drinks tend to overcompensate and feel that they can make up for these “free” calories in other ways throughout the day. More research is needed to look at why diet sodas might not be the best answer, but from what we have seen thus far they don’t seem like the best choice.

So, what are your best beverage options besides diet soda?

  1. Water is your best go-to beverage.  I carry a bottle or cup around with me all day every day.  Getting plenty of just good ol’ water has countless benefits.
  2. For those of you who need a little flavor in your drink, there are several sparkling waters on store shelves that are lightly infused with natural fruit flavors, are all natural, and have no sugar or artificial sweeteners. Target’s brand, Simply Balanced, has a version and La Croix and Dasani do too.  These could be a good replacement for people who prefer carbonation.
  3. You can also infuse your own bottled water with any mix of fruits and herbs to add flavor.
  4. If you need that hit of caffeine, switching to herb infused unsweetened tea, like mint or Rosemary is a good choice too.  Tea is a great choice because it has antioxidants that help protect us from disease and the good news is that the caffeine, if consumed in moderation, does not have the negative diuretic effect we once thought. Many of us have a habit of grabbing for that midafternoon shot of caffeine because we hit a slump. A better choice would be to think back on what you’ve eaten that day and see if that could be impacting your energy level.

If you have a regular habit of drinking soda, either diet or regular, try to reduce the amount you drink by half. If you drink it every day then try to go to every other day. If you drink three cans per day try to cut back to one. Gradually cutting back can be easier than cutting it out cold turkey.

I encourage clients to try to get the most benefit and nutrition out of what they eat and drink. Food is medicine – or can be poison – and directly impacts our health, especially long-term. With soda and diet soda there is no redeeming nutritional value at all.  Making some healthy modifications in what you drink day-to-day could have a positive impact on your waistline and your overall health.