Soda, pop, coke, Fizzy Lifting Drinks — no matter the name, carbonated beverages are almost everywhere, comprising up to 21 percent of Americans' total caloric intake. Originally created so diabetics could enjoy soft drinks without health risks, diet soda has become a way for people to stay slim while getting in a sip. But while many might think these “diet” drinks do the body good, drinking diet soda might actually be linked with greater weight gain than its sugar-filled counterpart (not to mention a potentially increased risk of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease) Gain weight by "going diet?" Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yang Q. Yale University, New Haven, CT. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2010 June; 83 (2): 101-108. .

Gettin’ Fizzy With It — The Need-to-Know

Diet Soda

According to a recent study, overweight and obese individuals who drank diet soda ended up consuming the same amount of daily calories as overweight and obese people who drank regular soda; the diet-soda drinkers compensated by eating extra quantities of solid food Diet-Beverage Consumption and Caloric Intake Among US Adults, Overall and By Body Weight. Bleich, S.N., Wolfson, J.A., Vine, S., et al. American Journal of Public Health 2014 Jan 16. Epub ahead of print. . Part of the connection between diet soda and weight gain could be psychological, since artificial (calorie-free) sweetners don't activate the same neural reward pathways as natural (caloric) sweeteners Gain weight by "going diet?" Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yang Q. Yale University, New Haven, CT. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2010 June; 83 (2): 101-108. .

In the past, researchers have found children who had more than one regular or diet soda per day consumed more daily calories and gained significantly more weight over time Correlates of beverage intake in adolescent girls: the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study. Striegel-Moore RH, Thompson D, Affenito SG, et al. Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT. The Journal of Pediatrics. 2006 Feb; 148(2): 183-187. . Other research suggests those who drink more than one diet soda per day experience a greater increase in waist circumference than those who stay away from bubbly drinks altogether. Looks like soda stomach could become the new beer belly.

So what’s the weight-gain culprit? Some research points to the body’s reaction to aspartame, a calorie free artificial sweetener used in many diet sodas Is aspartame really safer in reducing the risk of hypoglycemia during exercise in patients with type 2 diabetes? Ferland A, Brassard P, Poirier P. Diabetes Care. 2007 July; 30(7). . Other studies point to sweet tastes as appetite enhancers, no matter the source, leading to higher post-meal calorie consumption Gain weight by "going diet?" Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yang Q. Yale University, New Haven, CT. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 2010 June; 83 (2): 101-108. .

And an expanding waist line may not be diet soda's only risk. Drinking more than one can per day might also increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which can up the risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes Diet soda intake and risk of incident metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Nettleton JA, Lutsey PL, Wang Y, et al. University of Texas Health Sciences Center, Houston, TX. Diabetes Care. 2009 April; 32(4): 688-694. . Downing the diet drinks could also cause extra fat to accumulate in the liver, leading to scarring and increased inflammation Soft drinks consumption and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Nseir W, Nassar F, Assy N. World Journal of Gastroenterology. 2010 July; 16(21): 2579 -2588. .

Kick the Can – Your Action Plan

When it comes to carbonated beverages, there are risks to both regular and diet options. When consumed in large quantities (like in place of water), each can have a significant, negative impact on the body. But if treated as an indulgence instead of a necessary staple, diet soda could be okay— and hey, there are certainly options that could be worse.

For those vowing to put down the can altogether, giving up soda doesn’t mean giving up flavored drinks. Several soda alternatives (including “jeltzer,” a mix of all-natural fruit juice and seltzer), may be just enough to fill that fizz craving. Even adding fruit sluices to a glass of cold water might satisfy a craving for sweet drinks. Making the switch may take some time, but the belly— and body— will be grateful.

Originally posted August 2011. Updated January 2014.

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