If a product says “diet” on the label, it must certainly mean it’s not as bad for you as the product that doesn’t say “diet,” right? Not necessarily, particularly when it comes to sodas. While they may have fewer calories or fewer added sugars, studies have shown that switching from regular soda to diet soda doesn’t exactly mean you’re making a healthier choice. Individuals who consume diet sodas regularly generally tend to experience the same negative health issues as those who consume regular sodas. Still, diet drinks are extraordinarily popular, raking in billions for soft drink companies each year. The next time you’re out for lunch or a dinner date, take a listen. You’ll definitely hear lots of people ordering diet beverages. But, are they doing so with the assumption that it’s “better” for them?
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Whitney Roberts says it all boils down to our perceptions. “As you know, when it comes to weight loss or dieting, most people are after a quick fix,” Roberts said. “Let’s say you currently drink three or four regular sodas each day. That’s 30 or 40 teaspoons of sugar and between 450 and 600 calories every day. Now, some research suggests that you can lose one pound each week if you can cut your total calorie intake by 500 calories each day. When you look at it that way, switching to diet drinks seems like an easy weight loss solution. While you may initially see some weight loss from making the switch, it very likely won’t help you in the long-term when it comes to taking weight off and keeping it off. Studies have shown that even as little as one diet soda per day can increase a person’s risk for developing metabolic syndrome, which includes higher cholesterol levels and increased weight circumference. All sodas contain fairly high levels of phosphate, which can lead to an increased risk for developing osteoporosis because of how phosphate affects the calcium levels in our bones,” she said.
Another concern is the artificial sweeteners diet sodas use in the place of real sugar. “What you’ll notice if you compare the ingredients in diet sodas and regular sodas is that, while they have less sugar and high fructose corn syrup, diet sodas tend to have more artificial sweeteners, which can actually taste much sweeter than regular sugar,” Roberts said. “A handful of studies have shown that artificial sweeteners that are used in the place of sugar and high fructose corn syrup can disrupt the body’s natural ability to regulate the intake of calories based on how sweet foods are. Which is to say, when you eat or drink an artificially flavored food or beverage, your body may not be able to accurately gauge how many calories you’re actually consuming. This can, of course, lead to weight gain,” she explained.
“Some studies also have suggested that diet sodas could be bad for your kidneys,” Roberts continued. “One study found that kidney function in women began to decline when they drank two or more diet sodas per day, which was not the case for women who drank the same amount of regular sodas per day. This suggests that the artificial sweeteners in diet drinks could be the cause.”
Ultimately, Roberts says, sodas should be treated as, well, treats. “It’s important to remember that there always are plenty of healthy alternatives to diet and regular soft drinks. You just have to choose them,” she said. “A diet or regular soda here or there is probably okay, but it’s best to view it as an occasional indulgence, not a go-to drink choice. For that, remember that water, skim milk, coffee, seltzer waters, or unsweetened black or green teas all make great healthier alternatives. If that doesn’t get you the fix you’re after, try adding a splash of 100 percent fruit juice to seltzer water. It will give you the same sweetness, plus the fizz of the carbonation that you would get with a soda,” she added.