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The Diet Soda Debate

Counting Calories continued...

“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.”

Hill counters that the sweetness in diet soda may work to your advantage.

“People like a sweet taste, and if you take it away from beverages, then they’ll probably consume more sweet calories from food,” he says. “But that’s just a speculation.”

As a pediatrician, Goran’s particularly concerned about artificial sweeteners. He says we don’t yet know what long-term effects they may have on children’s development. Other studies also raise concerns.

Findings presented at a March meeting of the American College of Cardiology suggest a link between drinking diet soda and a greater risk of heart attack among otherwise healthy, postmenopausal women. The researchers are quick to point out, though, that they can’t explain the relationship and more study is needed.

Finally, a study in the journal General Dentistry from May of last year contends that drinking a lot of soda -- both diet and regular -- can severely damage teeth. But in this case, it’s not the sweetener that’s the culprit. The acid in the soda, coupled with bad oral hygiene, caused the decay.

To Drink or Not to Drink Diet Soda?

Goran says diet soda may be a good first step in the weight loss process, if you already drink a lot of regular soda or other sugary drinks. Dietician Joan Salge Blake, RD, LDN, agrees.

“They don’t cause weight gain, but we don’t know yet if they really help with weight loss,” says Blake, who's a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. “They can be a part of a weight loss program, but they are not going to magically help you lose weight.”

Goran and Blake advise soda drinkers to gradually move away from sweetened beverages altogether. Blake recommends naturally flavored, no-calorie fizzy water. Goran says his kids like their lemonade heavily watered down with seltzer.

“Ultimately,” Goran says, “it’s probably healthier not to drink sweetened beverages.”


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