The Skinny on Diet Sodas

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No one is under the illusion that diet sodas are a health food–we know there’s nothing good for us in them–but at least they help us lose weight, right?

Apparently not. Compared to people who don’t drink soda at all, those who drink either sugar-sweetened or artificially sweetened sodas are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, which includes obesity; increased levels of fats in the blood (hyperlipidemia), including cholesterol and triglycerides; and elevated blood sugars. All of these factors are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. And according to a new review of data from the San Antonio Heart Study, adults who drank sodas sweetened with sugar gained weight over a period of seven to eight years (no surprise there), but those who drank diet sodas gained even more weight! In fact, the more diet soda they consumed, the more weight they gained.

Diet Soda and Weight Gain

How can this be? Although there is no evidence that drinking diet soda plays a direct role in causing weight gain, there are several possible explanations for this association. Diet soda drinkers may:

  • Be more prone to gain weight in the first place
  • Be more likely to eat unhealthy, high-calorie diets
  • Over-rely on their diet soda habit rather than focusing on effective weight-loss tactics

A Word on Artificial Sweeteners

Since the neural pathways that sense taste find it hard to distinguish artificial sweeteners from the real thing, it’s possible that drinking diet soda conditions people to want more sweets in their diet. If this is true, people who drink a lot of diet soda might consume more sugary foods, either knowingly or unknowingly–in the form of processed foods, many of which contain hidden sugars.

Interestingly, in a recent study on rats that received a lot of media attention, scientists found that rats fed a diet containing artificially sweetened liquids may lose the ability to assess the caloric content of foods and may ultimately take in more calories than rats fed only foods containing real sugar.

If diet sodas contribute to weight gain, even indirectly, they are not only ineffective at precisely what they were supposed to do–prevent empty-calorie overload–but they may be worsening the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the US. Substituting regular sodas is no solution. Your best bet is to stay away from sodas of any kind as much as possible. So the next time you’re thinking about reaching for a soft drink, try a glass of sparkling water instead–cheers!

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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