Diet Soda: It’s Not Just Making You Fat

We know you’ve heard about diet soda dangers. But, you still feel better about having those two jumbo sized hot dogs and fries since you ordered it with a diet soda, right?

Well, you shouldn’t. While diet soda sounds like an easy way to cut calories, experts continue to compile fact after fact about just why diet soda is so detrimental to your health.

In fact, it may even be worse than regular soda.

Close to 60 percent of Americans drink diet soda on a regular basis.

Diet Soda and Weight Loss: What The Experts Say

“Recent literature suggests that those who drink diet soda weigh more than those who don’t. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Does diet soda cause weight gain? I think that is the wrong question. I don’t think people should drink diet soda, whether they have weight problems or not,” says Darwin Deen, MD, senior attending physician at Montefiore Medical Center’s Department of Family and Social Medicine in the Bronx, New York.

Of top concern, drinking diet soda has been linked to developing metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a group of conditions that include expanding waist size, increased blood pressure, elevated triglycerides, lower levels of good cholesterol, and high fasting blood sugar levels. Having three or more of these findings increases your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Here are some other research findings you should know about diet soda:

• The More You Drink, The Bigger You’ll Be. According to the San Antonio Heart Study, the more diet sodas you drink, the greater the chance that you will be overweight or obese. For each diet soda you drink there is a 65 percent increase in your risk of becoming overweight.

• The Metabolic Syndrome Link. According to the Framingham Heart Study, as well as the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, if you drink diet soda, or consume too much meat or fried foods, you are at risk for weight gain and metabolic syndrome; all three are significantly associated with the disorder.

• Artificial Sweetener Can Lead To Greater Weight Gain. According to research done at Purdue University, rats that were fed artificial sweeteners gained more weight than rats fed normal sugar.

Diet Soda and Weight Loss: Why the Weight Gain?

Although researchers can’t say for sure why diet soda sets the stage for weight gain, there are several possible reasons. “I discourage my patients from drinking diet sodas because while they have no calories, they are created to simulate the sweetness of a regular soda. This leaves the drinker’s taste buds completely overwhelmed. For an example of this, take a sip of water and then bite into your favorite fruit. Then try the same experiment with diet soda. Note that the real food tastes flat after drinking soda,” explains Dr. Deen. The distortion of taste may cause the diet soda drinker to seek higher calorie foods.

Another possibility is that people just eat more because they think they are saving calories from drinking a diet soda. A direct link between artificial sweeteners and a craving for high-calorie foods may exist. There is also the possibility that the link is related to unknown factors involving diet, exercise, or other personal characteristics.

Lastly, researchers believe that consuming high amounts of fructose (a type of sugar), artificial sweeteners, and sugar alcohols (another type of low-calorie sweetener) cause your gut bacteria to adapt in a way that interferes with your satiety signals and metabolism, according to a new paper in Obesity Reviews. (If you’ve noticed you’ve been feeling tired all the time and gaining weight, your metabolism may be slowing).

“An evolution of the gut flora to this new sweetener-rich environment has a potential to negatively impact our health,” says Amanda Payne, Ph.D.

How does that happen? As bacteria in the gut process food, they give off byproducts called short-chain fatty acids. These can be beneficial and serve as energy in the body. But as the sweetener-adapted bacteria thrive and become more efficient at processing large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and sugar alcohols, they also produce more and more short-chain fatty acids. (Not to imply that sugar is any better than artificial sweeteners.

In those high amounts, Payne says, short-chain fatty acids decrease satiety signals.  ”This signaling may cause disruptions in our feeling full and hence prevent us from stopping to eat when we should,” Payne says.

As if overeating isn’t enough, the short-chain fatty acids also promote inflammation in the lining of the gut. Just how? Scientists aren’t yet sure. But they do know that inflammation damages gut tissue and results in leaky gut syndrome.

Diet Soda and Weight Loss: Caffeine’s Role

Although diet soda has fewer calories than regular soda, the caffeine content may be greater. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a 12-ounce regular Coke contains 35 milligrams of caffeine and a Diet Coke contains 47 mg. At low levels, caffeine can stimulate energy, make you more alert, and may be beneficial for weight loss. In higher amounts it can cause nervousness, increased heart rate, and difficulty concentrating. You may also get withdrawal symptoms such as headache, irritability, or depression if you stop taking caffeine suddenly.

“Although caffeine can be helpful for weight loss, I recommend getting your caffeine from iced coffee. If you need to add sugar, add as little as possible for taste,” says Deen. “I advise my patients to drink water. For a healthy alternative to diet soda, try adding one-third cup of fruit juice to seltzer water for a low-calorie and not-too-sweet beverage.”

Although the exact relationship of diet soda to weight gain and metabolic syndrome is not clear, it is obvious that diet soda should not be considered a “healthy” alternative to regular soda. When you choose to drink any soda, you are choosing to drink a beverage that is just not as healthy for you as milk, juice, or water.

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