Is diet soda bad for you when compared to sugar-loaded beverages? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question and the debate will likely continue for years to come. It’s no secret that sugar-sweetened beverages can have a dramatic impact on our daily calorie intake. It also shouldn’t take much of a jump in logic to also make the correlation between sugar-sweetened beverages and increased weight (1) and obesity.

We have all heard of the health risks associated with obesity (2). Obesity contributes to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some Cancers. We also know that having too much added sugar in our diet causes the weight gain that leads to obesity. So, when looking to both cut calories and decrease the amount of sugar in our diet, diet sodas seem to be a good alternative to drinks sweetened with sugar. But, is diet soda safe and is diet soda a healthy alternative to sugared drinks?

Typically, diet soda (6) is calorie-free due to the use of artificial sweeteners, rather than sugar, to sweeten the drinks. In the past, the most commonly used artificial sweetener was saccharin (9). Concerns that saccharin was a carcinogen led to a ban on its use and food producers turned to aspartame (Nutrasweet) (8) in its place. Although artificial sweeteners continue to create a tremendous amount of controversy regarding being safe for human consumption short term and long term, aspartame dominates the market for artificial sweeteners. In addition to aspartame, sucralose (Splenda) has grown in popularity as an alternative to sugar. Sucralose is being marketed as a “safer” artificial sugar, however, there is just as much controversy (10 ) surrounding sucralose. There has been a growing movement in the functional beverage market to move from artificial sweeteners all together to natural 0 calorie alternatives such as stevia ( sometimes referred to as Reb A which is short for Rebaudioside A) (11).  Even large nationwide brands such as Sobe and Vitamin Water have embraced this natural 0 calorie alternative.

So, I guess the real question remains, if you are concerned about the controversy surrounding artificial sweeteners, is it worth the risk to drinking diet soda as an alternative to full sugar soda?  That’s really a decision you need to make for yourself and taking it one step further, should you really be drinking soda at all?  Traditional thought is that diet soda is helpful for anyone on a weight loss regimen and, in particular, anyone who is used to consuming large amounts of sugary drinks as a way to reduce your sugar habit. So, in comparison to an unhealthy amount of added sugar in the diet, drinking diet soda was perceived as a healthier option (7).

However, there have been studies that indicate that even though diet soda does not contain sugar, it can trigger the same insulin response (5) that sugar triggers. In addition, diet sodas can trigger the appetite (4) and unlike real sugar, artificial sweeteners do not have the capacity to satiate the appetite. The result is that drinking diet soda may cause you to eat more. One study showed that the waistlines of diet soda drinkers grew 70% more than those of non-diet soda drinkers. If diet soda is causing increased hunger and, therefore, increased caloric intake, it is not as useful as a weight loss tool as we may think. Additionally, the increased weight that can be associated with diet soda consumption will put us at risk for obesity and the health risks associated with obesity.

Is Diet Soda Bad For You: The Bottom Line

Does this mean that we should eliminate diet sodas from our diet completely?
As with anything, moderation is the key. It might be difficult for a heavy drinker of sweet soda drinks to stop “cold turkey” and switching to diet soda might be a good first step in breaking the sugar habit. There are some stevia sweetened sodas on the market if you are uncomfortable with artificial sweeteners. Still, the ultimate goal should be to have a diet that is limited in both added sugar and artificial sweeteners. Some studies even suggest that drinking more than one soda a day, regular or diet (3), increases your risk of obesity and related health problems such as type 2 diabetes. Healthier alternatives to diet soda include water, carbonated water with a splash of fruit juice, flavored milk including almond, soy and rice milk and unsweetened iced tea.

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