On a warm day, there is sometimes nothing more refreshing than a cold diet soda to quench one’s thirst.
For people who live with diabetes, the invention of diet soda has been nothing short of revolutionary: the same great taste (according to some) without having to take insulin for sugar normally found in regular sodas, worry about cavities, or endure stubborn high blood sugars.
But is diet soda all it’s cracked up to be? Are the artificial sweeteners found in diet sodas helpful or harmful?
This article will investigate diet sodas so you can better weigh the pros and cons and determine if you wish to incorporate them into your diet (and how).
The history of diet soda
Modern-day soda, a sweet, carbonated beverage, has been around for a very long time. The drink was first invented in 1767 by a European man named Joseph Priestly, who figured out how to infuse regular water with carbon dioxide, giving it its signature bubbles.
The concoction was then sweetened with different flavored syrups, similar to today’s Italian sodas, and was actually sold in pharmacies.
People in the 1700s believed that flavored sodas could treat illnesses such as gastrointestinal disturbances, and bellyaches, and pharmacists would sometimes mix medicines into soda to make it easier to take.
Diet sodas, such as No-Cal, Diet Coke, and Tab were not introduced until the 1950s and 1960s when the dieting industry and Americans’ subsequent obsession with calorie counting became extremely popular, and ever since, diet sodas and beverages have surged in popularity, from which people with diabetes have benefited.
While diet soda can be a refreshing treat (that you don’t have to take insulin for!), there are definitely downsides as well, especially if you drink many diet sodas in a day.
Many diet sodas are full of artificial flavors, sweeteners, and chemicals, like aspartame and saccharin.
However, many studies researching the issue have not controlled for other risk factors, including lack of physical activity, and body mass index (BMI). This can confuse the data, as people who are choosing diet sodas may already be trying to control their caloric intake (and thus have a higher BMI), or already suffer from insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, however bad some of these added chemicals may be in high rates of consumption, no research study has definitively linked diet soda consumption with the development of cancer.
Does diet soda lead to weight gain?
There is no causation between drinking diet soda and immediately gaining weight.
A 2012 study showed that the artificial sweeteners in diet soda may change the levels of dopamine in the brain, thus changing the way one’s brain responds to (and craves) sweet flavors.
Artificial sweeteners found in diet sodas are hundreds of times sweeter than real sugar, and if you’re used to drinking the sweet flavor of diet soda (or cakes and cookies made with artificial sweeteners to save on calories) your brain will naturally adapt to the level of sweetness, and you’ll start craving sweeter foods as a result.
Equal (aspartame) is 160-200 times sweeter than sugar, and Sweet’n’Low (saccharin) is 300-500 times sweeter than natural sugar. When not drinking that diet soda, this can cause you to eat more foods made with sugar, and gain weight as a result.
When you’re hooked on diet soda, you may find naturally sweet foods like fruit less appealing, and foods like broccoli and kale may start to feel almost inedible. This, in turn, makes many people reach for more processed foods to simply meet their newer tastes.
Additionally, when you drink diet soda, you may signal to your brain that you’re doing something “healthy”, and eat unhealthy food along with it to “reward” yourself.
A study in 2014 found that overweight and obese people who drank diet soda regularly ate between 90 and 200 more calories per day than those who drank the regular, sugar-sweetened soda.
For people with diabetes, however, diet soda may still be helpful because we already need to be so cognizant of what we’re consuming anyway, that we may be less likely to “treat” ourselves in other ways.
What other studies show
A Japanese study in 2014 found that men who drank diet soda were more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who didn’t. The study findings even controlled for age, BMI, family history, and other lifestyle factors.
Additionally, in 2014, a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition revealed that one’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes rose by 13% for every 12oz can of diet soda they consumed in a day, and this was whether or not they had a high BMI or were overweight.
Finally, in a 2017 study of over 2,000 people, researchers determined that drinking only one diet soda per day tripled one’s risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
Can diet soda be a healthy part of any diet?
All of this data is compelling, but it shouldn’t completely steer you away from drinking diet soda if you live with diabetes and you love it! Truly, moderation is key.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics believes that artificial sweeteners can be part of a healthy diet, especially for kids, if they’re replacing a sugar-sweetened soda with a diet soda.
This will drastically cut down on your added sugar and caloric intake, but just make sure to limit your consumption, and to mostly stick with plain water or seltzer (and to, of course, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables!).
If you’re addicted to the caffeine hit from your daily diet soda, try opting for black coffee or tea, without any added chemicals or artificial sweeteners.
Diet soda can be part of a healthy diet, but remember to limit your intake.
Diet soda is wildly popular in the United States, and for good reason! It lacks both the sugar and calories found in regular soda, and the taste is nearly the same. For people with insulin-dependent diabetes, it doesn’t require an extra insulin dose, which is incredible.
However, studies have shown that even moderate consumption of diet soda can lead to insulin resistance, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, weight gain, and possibly even diseases like Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
It is important to be aware of these risks, but if you’re managing a chronic disease like diabetes, it’s also important to have sugar-free options that you enjoy.
If you love your diet soda, don’t stop drinking it completely. Just enjoy it in moderation, with a healthy diet of plenty of water, fresh fruits and vegetables, and not too many processed foods.
Keep your eye on any insulin resistance you develop or weight gain you experience. Better yet, opt for healthier beverages like water with a slice of lemon, all-natural seltzer water, or even unsweetened coffee and tea.
While diet soda is by no means the healthiest beverage out there, when enjoyed in moderation with a healthy lifestyle, it can be a fun, occasional, and refreshing treat. Cheers!
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