by Fawne Hansen
Sugar has been demonstrated by many studies to be one of the main causes of obesity. Because sugar is full of calories and has no nutritional value, a high-sugar diet is unlikely to contain enough nutrients necessary to maintain good health, and will likely also lead to weight gain. This not only puts us at risk of serious illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but also has adverse effects on our endurance, speed of recovery after exercise, and more.
Over the past 10-15 years, this has led many consumers to switch to ‘diet’ forms of their favorite drinks and foods. These contain less sugar and fewer calories, and are marketed as ‘healthier’ and guilt-free compared to their sugary counterparts. However, the truth is that the artificial sweeteners contained in them can have just as negative an effect on your health as regular sugar can. In fact, sometimes you’d be better to stick with the sugary soda rather than trying the ‘diet’ version.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has confirmed in a report that Americans today consume a lot more sugar than they used to, and a lot more sugar than most of the rest of the world. Compared to just three decades ago, the world daily average consumption of sugar has increased by 46%. As it stands, the average American consumes around 156 pounds of sugar every year. Most of that sugar comes from the food and the liquids that they consume. The biggest source of that sugar is sweet drinks. These sugary concoctions account for about 10% of the total sugar consumption.
One method that consumers often use to decrease their sugar intake is to switch to diet sodas, drinks that are supposed to be healthier due to their low or zero sugar content. Just this simple substitution can remove anywhere from 200 to 1000 calories from the daily diet of an individual. However, the effects are not as positive as most would think. This is because the artificial sweeteners used in these diet sodas still trigger the body into behaving as if it just absorbed regular sugar. So even if there is no actual sugar entering your bloodstream, your blood sugar levels will increase just the same.
1. Diet Soda and Weight Loss
The main reason why people switch from regular soda to diet soda is weight loss. After all, diet sodas have a lot fewer calories than regular sodas, so it stands to reason that it would help with weight loss. However, studies have shown that drinking diet soda does nothing to trigger or benefit weight loss in any way. In fact, drinking diet soda can be just as unhealthy (or even more so) as drinking regular soda due to the presence of artificial sweeteners.
One study performed on animals and published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (1) showed that diet soda can be linked with weight gain by increasing the appetite and slowing down the metabolism of the test animals. This has also been confirmed by another study performed on humans where the people who consumed diet foods put on weight due to a tendency to overeat. This behavior is triggered not only by physical reactions occurring in the body, but also by psychological ones – people think they are saving on calories by consuming diet foods instead of normal ones and therefore they think that eating more is ok because it is balanced out.
2. Diet Soda and Diabetes
Another reason why diet soda is preferred by many people is the perceived notion that cutting back on sugar will decrease the chances of developing type 2 diabetes. While there is a link between consumption of sweet beverages and diabetes, the idea that consuming lots of sugar alone leads to diabetes is a myth, as stated by the American Diabetes Association.(2) The truth is that there are many factors that can be a cause for diabetes, including genetics, age, ethnicity and being overweight. However, since being overweight is actually what puts people at risk for diabetes, and since diet soda does not help with weight loss, there is no reason to believe that the latter can have a beneficial effect in preventing diabetes.
One notable study which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed exactly this.(3) This was a long 14-year study covering the effects of all diet foods and their relation to diabetes which targeted over 66,000 women. The study showed that consumption of both sugar-sweetened beverages and artificially sweetened beverages increased the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
3. Diet Soda and Tooth Decay
People who are aware that sodas will have an adverse effect on oral health should also know that the same can be said about diet sodas. This is because the main difference between them is sugar content and it is not the sugar which causes tooth decay, it is the citric acid. Carbonated beverages are quite acidic with an average pH of 3.2. Years of drinking soda regularly, regardless of whether it is diet or not, will wear away the enamel which covers the teeth and acts as a protective layer. Because of this, teeth will not only suffer discoloration, but will also be at a higher risk of developing cracks and cavities. Again, due to a psychological factor, people who regularly drink diet soda are actually more affected because they tend to drink more since they think that it is safe and healthy compared to regular soda.
4. Artificial Sweeteners in Diet Soda
Most of the problems generated by diet soda are due to the presence of artificial sweeteners which sometimes can be just as bad, if not worse, than regular sugar. While sugar has been studied for a long time and its effects on the body are well-documented, sweeteners come in many forms and new ones are always being developed, so it is hard to say that they will all have the same effect on the human body and what that effect might be. However, existing research does point to some disturbing effects.
There are links between aspartame (the sweetener used in most diet sodas) and seizures, migraines and other neurological problems, as well as cancer.(4) One long 11-year study conducted by Harvard Medical School was not enough to provide conclusive evidence, but it did show a link between diet soda and kidney problems after studying over 3,000 women.(5) Since there is no such connection with regular soda, it is suspected that the sweeteners involved were the culprits.
(1) Swithers et al, 2008, “A role for sweet taste: calorie predictive relations in energy regulation by rats”, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18298259.
(2) American Diabetes Association, “Diabetes myths”, http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/myths/.
(3) Fagherazzi et al, 2013, “Consumption of artificially and sugar-sweetened beverages and incident type 2 diabetes in the Etude Epidémiologique auprès des femmes de la Mutuelle Générale de l’Education Nationale”, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2013/01/30/ajcn.112.050997.
(4) The Candida Diet, “If You’re On A Candida Diet, Avoid Aspartame”, http://www.thecandidadiet.com/aspartame-and-candida/.
(5) WebMD, “Diet sodas may be hard on the kidneys”, http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20091102/diet-sodas-hard-on-the-kidneys.