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Is Switching to Diet Soda Safer?

Research on this question isn't clear. A study published in the journal Circulation in January 2008 found that people who drank just one diet soda a day faced a 34% higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a constellation of health problems including being overweight and having high blood-sugar levels that may lead to diabetes.

Also, studies done in animals indicate that diet soda can boost the craving for sweets. Human studies haven't backed this up yet, but Katz thinks it makes sense. "We have a sweet tooth not a 'sugar tooth,' per se. Sweets feed a sweet tooth, and the more sweets you get, the more you tend to want," says Katz.

But Barry Popkin, PhD, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, notes that the diet soda studies in humans don't account for the other types of food the soda drinkers ate.

Popkin says there are two groups of diet soda drinkers.

  • One type drinks diet soda and eats healthy foods.
  • The other type drinks diet soda to justify ordering burgers and fries and other fattening foods.

"The ones in the latter group are the ones at higher risk for metabolic syndrome," says Popkin.

Making the Move off Soda

If you're convinced that all that sweet soda isn't doing you any good, how do you beat the craving for soft drinks?

First, says Field, know what not to switch to. Sales of sports beverages and "energy drinks" are rising, but those drinks are just as calorie-loaded as Coke and Pepsi. The new beverages may have more added nutrients than soda, but few people need that type of nutrition.

"I run marathons and I don't need a sports drink unless I've been running for more than an hour," says Field.

Instead, try these options:

  • Start slow by replacing sugared sodas with diet ones. "They're not that great for you, but in terms of obesity, I'd rather see you drinking diet than sugared," says Field.
  • Cut down gradually: replace one regular soft drink (or one diet soda) per day with an alternative drink. The best choice: water. "There may be health benefits to water even beyond those linked with cutting calories," says Popkin. "We were biologically evolved to drink water, and a series of new studies being published suggests that there are some extra metabolic effects of drinking water."
  • If you really need something with a boost of flavor, try calorie-free flavored waters and seltzers.
  • If it's the caffeine you crave, you're better off with tea or coffee, with minimal added sugars.

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