Living with diabetes comes with many challenges; we need to constantly know what and how much we eat and drink, and continuously calibrate our medications, like metformin or insulin, accordingly. It can be exhausting. One shining beacon of light (and a delicious thirst-quencher) is diet soda. It’s sweet, it’s refreshing, and it has zero carbohydrates! But recently, more and more research has been released linking diet soda to a plethora of GI issues and health problems (including, surprisingly enough, obesity). So, what’s the deal? Is diet soda a harmless, carbohydrate freebie treat or a danger to one’s health and well-being? Read more to get the scoop.
Many people with diabetes yearn to have a refreshing beverage that won’t affect their blood sugars, and sometimes water just won’t cut it. On days when it feels as though the wind will cause hyperglycemia, nothing is crisper or more enjoyable than enjoying a diet soda–and they’re typically known as “free” food–meaning they don’t require an insulin dose, nor do they raise one’s blood sugar. Seems innocent enough, right? About 1 in 5 Americans drink at least one diet soda per day, according to the CDC, but few can figure out if they’re good or bad for us. What gives?
Unfortunately, diet sodas are full of artificial flavors and chemicals, as well as artificial sweeteners, like aspartame and saccharin. A growing body of research links consumption with an increased incidence of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, dementia, stroke, and non-fatty liver disease.
On the other hand, many studies correlating diet soda consumption with chronic health issues have failed to control for other risk factors, like lifestyle (sedentary vs. active) and body mass index (BMI). This causes a selection bias, as the type of person that may be more likely to drink diet soda may already be trying to lose weight (higher BMI) or better control their type 2 diabetes (chronic inflammation from higher glucose numbers). On the whole, no studies have proven causation between diet soda consumption and cancer.
Does Diet Soda Make You Gain Weight?
In short, no, but they can lead to it. A 2012 study showed that the artificial sweeteners in diet soda may change the levels of dopamine in the brain, thus changing the way one’s brain responds to (and craves) sweet flavors. Artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than actual sugar, and if you’re used to drinking the sweet flavor of diet soda, your brain will naturally adapt, and you may start craving sweeter foods as a result. Equal (aspartame) is 160-200 times sweeter than sugar, and Sweet’n’Low (saccharin) is 300-500 times sweeter than natural sugar. This can cause you to eat more foods made with sugar, and gain weight as a result, although these sweeteners have been deemed safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Christoper Gardner, Ph.D., Director of Nutrition Studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center says, “You may find fruit less appealing because it’s less sweet than your soda, and vegetables may become inedible” causing people to reach for more processed foods that contain added sugar and calories.
Additionally, if you’re drinking diet soda, you may feel as though you’re doing something “healthy”, and make up for it by not being as stringent about a healthy diet. A 2014 study showed that overweight and obese people who drank a diet soda ate between 90-200 more calories per day than those who drank sugar-sweetened soda. This explains the phenomenon of patrons ordering fries with their diet soda at fast-food restaurants.
“Diet sodas may help you with weight loss if you don’t overcompensate, but that’s a big if,” Gardner adds.
What Research Is Telling Us
A 2014 study out of Japan found that men who drank diet soda were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who didn’t. The study findings even controlled for age, BMI, family history of the disease, and other lifestyle factors. Additionally, a 2017 study of over 2,000 people showed that drinking one diet soda per day tripled one’s risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
Additionally, in 2014, a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition revealed that one’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes rose by 13% for every 12oz can of diet soda they consumed in a day.
Moderation Is Key
While all of these artificial sweeteners are chemicals, they can be part of a healthy diet, per the American Dietetic Association. If you’re replacing sugar-sweetened soda with diet soda, it can be a remarkably easy way to cut down on sugar and calories, but try and maintain a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables as well, and don’t “treat” yourself to fast-food or sugared goodies for “being good” by having a sugar-free soda.
If you’re looking for an afternoon caffeine hit that soda normally provides, try opting for black coffee or tea to avoid the artificial sweeteners. Better yet, try weaning yourself off of soda completely and opting for a healthier, and more natural seltzer water, like La Croix, that doesn’t contain any artificial additives or chemicals.
All told, diet soda isn’t the absolute healthiest thing you can be drinking (read: that’s water), but in moderation, with a healthy diet and plenty of exercise, it can be a delightful, carb-free treat. Cheers!
What are your thoughts on diet soda? Are you addicted to the stuff, or try to avoid it at all costs? Share this post and comment below; we love hearing from our readers!
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