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All this is important because soft drinks are a significant part of the American diet. Of the $80-billion-a-year beverage industry in the U.S., about $64 billion is spent on carbonated soft drinks, says John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. Regular soda accounts for 72.6% of those sales; diet soda for 27.4%.

Sales of diet soft drinks have been on the rise in the last few years, says Sicher. But growing even more quickly are bottled waters and sports drinks, he says, observing that consumers are looking for beverages that fit in with their health goals.

No Need to Go Cold Turkey

Soda is certainly not an ideal drink from a health standpoint -- it offers no nutritional value and can be high in sugar, sodium, and caffeine. But the good news, experts say, is that if you truly love it, there's no need to give it up completely.

If you generally watch what you eat and are reasonably active, a soda or two a day isn't going to derail your efforts, says Tavis Piattoly, RD, director of performance enhancement at Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans.

But if you regularly drink two, three, or more cans a day, the added sugar can pile on the pounds "unless, of course, the soft drinks are planned into an overall diet of moderation, variety, and of course, exercise," says Dee Sandquist, RD, manager of nutrition and diabetes at the Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, Wash.

Keep in mind that when you're trying to adopt a healthier diet, it's not a good idea to completely deprive yourself of treats, Marr says.

"A very Spartan diet without some of your favorite foods is not sustainable," she says. "I encourage people to figure out how to include their favorite foods into their diet."

The Skinny on Diet Sodas

If you're trying to cut calories but don't want to give up soda altogether, switching either to the new lower-calorie sodas or to diet sodas is a good option, says Sandquist.

Extensive research has shown that the artificial sweeteners used in diet sodas are safe (except for people who have the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria or PKU, who should not consume aspartame).

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