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Do Diet Sodas Cause Obesity?

Soda Cans

Sensational stories sell papers, but they frequently distort the truth. The first sentence in a story linking obesity with diet soda said this. "People who drink diet soft drinks don't lose weight. In fact, they gain weight, a new study shows."

It's a blanket statement that is quite simply false. Plenty of people who drink diet soft drinks lose weight. A study published in 2007 by Purdue University in Indiana found that "diet soda prone consumers make better nutrition choices, particularly regarding energy content."

But, there are a significant number of people who GAIN weight while drinking diet soda. The question we should be asking is, why?

Let's take a look at the research that prompted many of those headlines. One of the most quoted studies is, "Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain." conducted by Sharon P. Fowler and her colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas.

The researchers followed 3,682 participants over "seven to eight years." Their goal was to "examine the relationship between artificially sweetened beverage (ASB) consumption and long-term weight gain..."

They made a connection. At the end of the study, it was found that people who drank 21 or more diet sodas a week, are nearly twice as likely to be overweight or obese than people who didn't drink diet soda.

Notice something important? They didn't say diet soda was the reason for the weight gain. They couldn't because diet sodas have little or no calories. What they said is drinking diet soda is an INDICATOR that you're more likely to become fat or obese. Now the real question is, why?

We now know there are three big reasons.

Burger and Fries with a DIET Soda One - Diet soda washes away the guilt. Have you ever been at a fast-food restaurant and heard an order like this? "I'll have a double burger with bacon, large fries, apple pie and a DIET soda." The person making that order is not eating healthy. A meal like that has more than 900 calories and two days supply of fat. But by making the drink a diet, they've somehow convinced themselves they're doing the right thing to keep the fat off. Diet soda is being used as a "get out of calories free" ticket.

Fix it by keeping track of ALL your calories, don't just order a diet drink and think it'll be enough. When you eat more than you burn off, you gain weight and eventually become obese. You've got to log everything you eat and drink, not just the convenient stuff.

 Two - Drinking a diet soda alone can lead to binge behavior. A common tactic people use to lose weight is starving themselves. They go for long periods of food deprivation while giving their bodies nothing but calorie-free drinks. When they finally do take the time to eat, they're ravenous. Smart choices go out the window and high-calorie convenience food is shoveled in. All those hours of deprivation are trashed as they wolf down pizza, cookies or other junk food to stop the hunger.

Fix it by eating something every two to three hours. Go ahead and drink a diet soda, but accompany it with half a light sandwich, soup, vegetables, whole fruit or healthy frozen meal. Then when your regular mealtime comes around, you won't be so hungry you settle for the fastest and fattiest thing you can get your hands on.

 Three - Drinking diet soda stimulates appetite. Our stomachs have taste buds. When we drink a diet soda, our stomachs detect "sweet" and start preparing for the sugary calories. Unfortunately, diet soda has none. After about 30 minutes, our bodies begin to crash because the "sweet calories" they were expecting never appeared. That makes us feel more hungry and tired than when we first drank the diet soda.

To deal with the hunger and crash, diet soda drinkers eat more calories, totally defeating the reason many drank diet soda to begin with. In a study called, "Diet-Beverage Consumption and Caloric Intake Among US Adults, Overall and by Body Weight" published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that overweight diet soda drinkers consumed an extra 88 calories a day and obese diet soda drinkers consumed an extra 194 calories a day.

Fix it by eating a little something every time you drink a diet soda. The same things you eat to avoid a binge are appropriate. Your brain gets the pleasurable taste and your body gets the calories it craves.

BUT, if drinking diet soda causes you to have cravings, don't drink it! Water is a perfectly healthy and viable alternative whenever you're thirsty.

Drinking diet soda alone will not cause obesity. But using diet soda as a guilt shield to avoid hunger pains or without a light snack for nutrition may lead to overeating. Don't hide behind the diet drink; confront and control the calories.

Here's another study that shows artificially flavored drinks stimulate the appetite of people who are already obese. (Something we've been pointing out since 2009.) This study was published in September of 2021.

Obesity and Sex-Related Associations With Differential Effects of Sucralose vs Sucrose on Appetite and Reward Processing
A Randomized Crossover Trial

Alexandra G. Yunker, Jasmin M. Alves, Shan Luo, et al

You can download the article here: JAMA Network: OPEN

Non Nutritive Sweeteners (sweeteners without calories) may be tricking our bodies into thinking "sweet" doesn't give calories.

According to recent research covered by Examine.com.

"In other words, not unlike “The Boy who Cried Wolf,” chronic intake of non-nutritive sweeteners could create a situation where the brain no longer ‘believes’ that a sweet taste is connected to an influx of energy. If this occurs in humans, it raises the possibility that those using lots of artificial sweeteners could be at risk for unintended weight gain."

This is precisely what we've been saying since 2010. It's why we recommend no-calorie sweeteners as a way to reduce calories in regular meals, but not to be used alone.

You can read their article here: http://examine.com/nutrition/is-it-time-to-sound-the-alarm-on-artificial-sweeteners/

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Updated 12/12/2010
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Updated 11/29/2021