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Counting Calories

Earlier this year, in January, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported that overweight and obese people who drink diet sodas tend to eat more calories during meals and from snacks throughout the day than those who drink sugary beverages, including regular soda. In adults with a healthy weight, the opposite was true: Those who drank sweetened beverages ate more than those who drank diet sodas.

Contrast this with a study published last year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It compared people who were randomly selected to swap their regular sodas for either water or diet drinks. The researchers found that both groups ate fewer calories and “showed positive changes in dietary patterns.” In fact, the diet-drink group ate fewer desserts by the end of the study than the water group, while the water group ate more fruits and vegetables.

“Diet beverages have been shown to be an effective tool as part of an overall weight-management plan,” the American Beverage Association says. “Numerous studies have repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of diet beverages – as well as low-calorie sweeteners, which are in thousands of foods and beverages – in helping to reduce calorie intake. Losing or maintaining weight comes down to balancing the total calories consumed with those burned through physical activity.”

On Sept. 17, a study in the journal Nature suggested artificial sweeteners may raise blood sugar levels more than sugar itself by altering gut bacteria, potentially leading to diabetes. Industry groups, however, argued that the small number of mice and people studied make the findings hard to apply to larger populations.

Artificial Sweeteners and Other Possible Health Concerns

So, do diet drinks ease the urge for other sweets? Goran believes the opposite may be true. He worries that no matter what sweetener is used -- sugar or a substitute -- the result may be a continued demand for more sweets.

“As a society, we have created a new norm of sweetness,” Goran says. “We’ve become accustomed to high levels of sweetness.”

By continuing to drink diet sodas, he speculates, “you still desire sweetness. You haven’t disentangled yourself from craving something sweet.”

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