Stuck on the artificially sweet stuff? Here’s what you can look forward to when you put down the can.
You know regular sodas are sugar bombs. But that zero-calorie can of diet soda you crack open instead in the name of better health? It’s not as harmless as you think.
In fact, it might be the opposite.
No-calorie does not mean good for you, says Nathan Myers, R.D., a clinical dietitian at James J. Peters VA Medical Center in New York City. In fact, it doesn’t even mean you’ll have an easier time reaching your weight loss goals, which is why most people switch from regular soda to diet.
Here are three top reasons to break up with your favorite diet soda—right now! Plus, see ideas for healthier sips.
Reason #1: The Scale Will Tip in Your Favor
Ever since the very first no-calorie carbonated beverage—called No-Cal Ginger Ale—hit store shelves in 1952, marketers have spun fizzy drinks as a way to help weight-conscious folks reach their targets on the scale.
But as enthusiasm for diet soda grew, so too did Americans’ waistlines. And that caught the eye of health experts, who collectively wondered, “What gives?”
In recent years, researchers have focused on the role artificial sweeteners might play in the obesity epidemic, Myers says.
“Major studies show an association between diet beverage consumption and higher body mass index,” he notes. “This opposes the advice that consuming low-calorie beverages supports weight loss.”
But if no actual calories in diet soda are contributing to weight gain, what is?
Myers explains that researchers over the years have tried to answer this question with two major theories. The first, called “compensatory calories,” is when someone uses having a zero-calorie soda to justify other poor eating and drinking decisions. An example: “I’m having a diet soda, so it’s okay to eat these cookies.”
The second: addiction. Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar. Aspartame, for instance, is roughly 200 times sweeter than the natural stuff. The theory is that artificial sweeteners overstimulate taste receptors and make more nutritious foods, like fruits and vegetables, less palatable.
“This second wave of research hasn’t reached the level of true consensus,” Myers says, but it has health professionals taking a hard look at artificial sweeteners.
Reason #2: Your Risk for Serious Health Problems May Drop
Could soda cut your life short? Maybe.
Drinking two sodas per day—whether made with sugar or artificial sweeteners—was associated with early death from any cause, according to a new JAMA Internal Medicine study that followed 452,000 people over 16 years. In particular, diet soda consumption was linked to higher risk of death from circulatory diseases, including heart attack and stroke.
It’s not just your cardiovascular system that takes a hit. Another study found people who drink one or more artificially sweetened beverages a day were almost three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, compared with those who didn’t drink any.
And because diet sodas are tricking you into drinking and eating more, they’ve been linked to excess weight and related conditions like type 2 diabetes.
While the research behind diet soda and these health problems isn’t conclusive and is still ongoing, Myers says that your safest bet is to cut back on sugar and artificial sweeteners.
“Reduced consumption of foods and beverages with added sweeteners—artificial or otherwise—can potentially benefit everyone,” he says. “And especially folks over 50, who face the challenges of slower metabolism and increased risk of health issues like high blood sugar in the years ahead.”
Cutting down on artificial sweeteners might also rekindle a love of healthier foods, Myers points out.
“The nutritional quality of your diet may improve, as you cease drowning out the subtler flavors of nutritious foods,” he explains.
Reason #3: Your Bones Get Stronger
As we get older, our bones get weaker. Women over the age of 60, in particular, are at a greater risk for osteoporosis. Add in a daily glass of diet soda, and your chances only go up.
In an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, for example, women who drank diet or regular cola daily had nearly 4 percent lower bone mineral density in their hips, compared with women who didn’t drink cola.
Other researchers, looking at data from the Nurses’ Health Study, found each daily serving of diet or regular soda was associated with a 14 percent increased risk of hip fracture for postmenopausal women.
Here again, experts haven’t been able to determine how soda weakens your bones, although many suspect it’s related to the combination of added sugars, caffeine, and high phosphorus content.
Swap for These Healthier Sips
Want to play it safe? While your best beverage option is water, Myers has plenty of flavorful recommendations for those who want some variety.
“Naturally flavored carbonated water, or seltzer, is a popular option that can be free of both calories and sweeteners,” he says. He also recommends fruit-infused waters because they provide similar hydration benefits.
To make your own, add berries, citrus, cucumber, or mint to plain water. Another trick: Take a few frozen prunes—one of the best foods to keep in your freezer—and drop them into a glass of sparkling water.
“Diluted coconut water, unsweetened almond milk, and low-sodium vegetable juices also bring flavor to hydration with less than half the calories of traditional sodas,” Myers adds.
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