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Diet Soda: Look Beyond Calorie Free


If you have been trying to reduce your soda intake to cut down on sugar and calories, a logical step might be to switch to diet soda. Diet soda may be low in calories, but it’s unclear if it's effective for preventing obesity and related long-term health problems.

Americans are trying to reduce their calorie and sugar intake by switching to diet soda, but the results aren’t what you would expect. Diet soda is being linked to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and even hip fractures.

Diet soda could be the reason you’re gaining weight or having a difficult time losing weight. The artificial sweeteners change the way we experience the reward activation triggers in our brains – interfering with appetite control. This means that our brain’s sweet sensors are not able to give us a reliable sense of the calories we’re consuming. You might be satisfying your sweet tooth in the moment, but you’re left with a lingering hunger for more. Zero-calorie artificial sweeteners might also affect gut bacteria in ways that predispose mice to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance -- the underlying precursors of metabolic abnormalities and diabetes.

The results of a study in 2009 found that drinking at least one diet soda a day was associated with a 67 percent greater risk for type 2 diabetes compared to people who never or rarely drank it. That’s a high risk packed into just 8 to 12 ounces.

While comparing evidence for and against diet soda, Susan Swithers, PhD, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at Purdue University, found that drinking one diet soda a day over the long term can put people “at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension and stroke.” These are the same health outcomes people are probably trying to avoid by opting for diet soda.

Is it possible that diet soda is not the only culprit? Other factors may contribute to the link between diet soda and poor health outcomes. However, the experts say that “the associations are strong, the evidence is consistent and the biological mechanisms are plausible.”

Bottom Line: Want to cut back on soda and sugar? Satisfy your thirst with water. If you need a pick-me-up, opt for unsweetened coffee or black tea. If you’re missing the bubbles in soda, carbonated water is a great option. If plain water isn’t for you, add fresh lemon or lime juice or fresh mint. Adding fresh fruit to your glass of water is also a great way to add flavor.

Written by: Stephanie Coburn, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern

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