Diet Soda: Good, Bad or In Between?

Health Writer

The debate on diet soda continues to gurgle.   It's very clear that consumption of regular sweetened soda is a pretty bad habit.   The added sugar makes it a liquid sweet bomb, especially when consumed in large quantities.   It's associated with weight gain and a host of health risks, again, because of large doses of sugar being consumed.   Diet soda, it would seem, should be the perfect answer.   You get a semblance of the experience of drinking soda (after all, many of the diet choices do taste a bit metallic), zero calories, and the carbonation can help to fill you up.

Not so fast, says a 2014 study out of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.   Lead author, Sara Bleich, found that adults who drink diet beverages actually eat more calories than their regular soda drinking peers.   One theory is that the artificial sweeteners in the diet version trigger more significant activation of reward centers in the brain (compared to sugar).   Since your brain doesn't then sense the reward of energy calories that accompany regular sugar, eating is typically triggered, and more often than not, the choices are processed foods loaded with".sugar, and fat, and sodium.

Another theory is that when you drink diet soda, you subliminally justify "making up the difference" with food calories, often sweet.   This may explain a 2009 study which noted a 67% higher risk of diabetes in persons consuming one diet soda daily, compared to those who never or rarely had diet soda.   Does diet soda upset the delicate balance of gut microorganisms?   A study in the journal Nature thinks it does.   In fact the very diseases diet soda drinkers are trying to avoid like diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and stroke, may be instigated by the gut microbe disruptions. There's also been discussion about soda, regular and diet, and increased risk of hip fractures in women.   It may not be the soda itself, but rather other habit associations leading to the increased fracture risk.   More research is needed to clarify the mechanism.

So a regular habit of consuming zero calorie soda drinks, though it seems to make sense when you're trying to lose weight, might need some re-thinking.   Chewing sugar-free gum might be one swap out, though if anti-aging is a priority, some plastic surgeons now associate jaw laxity (jowls) with that habit.   Consider a walk, hot shower, or other behavior that interrupts cravings.   Hot or iced unsweetened tea (there are so many to choose from), or plain water might need to be your go to beverages from now on

Observation: We always tell dieters to drink water when they get cravings, so you don't eat if you're not truly hungry.   But repeated grabs of a diet soda, when you really are hungry, may backfire.   On the other hand, I have had clients over the years who have found that diet soda provides them with a zero calorie habit that keeps them "in control."