by McKenzie Hall, R.D.

The debate surrounding the weight loss benefits of drinking diet soda — more specifically, its artificial sweetener content — is a hot one. Some experts argue that drinking diet soda instead of its sugar-sweetened counterpart can cut calories and support weight loss. Yet emerging research indicates that diet soda is not conducive to weight control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines reflects this, recommending that noncaloric sweeteners may reduce the intake of added sugar, yet still questioning their effectiveness as a weight management strategy.

A 2005 study by researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center found that the more diet soda a person drank, the higher the risk for becoming overweight or obese. For each diet soda the participants drank per day, their likelihood of becoming overweight was increased by 65 percent, and obese by 41 percent.

The same university conducted another study in 2011, which included 474 participants, aged 65 years or older, from the San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging, and found that over a 10-year period diet soda drinkers as a group had 70 percent greater increases in waist circumference than non-diet soda drinkers. And high diet-soda consumers (two or more per day) had waist circumference increases that were 500 percent greater than non-diet soda drinkers.

Why diet sodas may work against you

One reason diet sodas may be ineffective for weight control is because of the disconnect between the taste of artificial sweeteners and their lack of calories. Upon tasting artificial sweeteners, the brain anticipates the body will need to digest calories, but because artificial sweeteners do not deliver energy, the body is simply thrown off. This was backed by a study published in Behavioral Neuroscience, which found that when rodents consumed yogurt with noncaloric sweetener they consumed more calories, gained more weight, and put on more body fat compared to rats given yogurt sweetened with sugar.

A study in a 2012 issue of Physiology & Behavior also found that diet soda drinkers’ brain receptors undergo a greater activation from the taste of sweetness, suggesting that regular consumption of diet soda may alter the brain’s normal reward processing that accompanies the taste of sweetness; in other words, the brain may experience a magnified response to the sweet-tasting drink, which may spur an increased desire for food.

Other health concerns

Aside from weight gain, artificially sweetened beverages appear to play a role in increasing other health risks. Daily diet soda consumption was linked with vascular risk factors and events, such as stroke, heart attack and death, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. And while both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages were associated with type 2 diabetes risk in women, the diet beverages carried the greatest risk, found a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Here’s what to do

Approximately 20 percent of the American population consumes diet beverages on any given day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given the growing body of evidence linking diet sodas to health problems, it might be a good idea to cut out this drink, which provides no nutritional benefits. Instead, opt for water, unsweetened iced tea or coffee, or sparkling water with a splash of 100 percent fruit juice.

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