There’s an old joke about a woman who orders 5 double cheeseburgers, an extra-large serving of fries, and a super-sized ice-cream sundae. Then tells the waitress that she also wants a diet soda – because she’s on a diet. Ironically, the diet soda could be the worst thing on her list.

Much debate is raging around whether diet soda is good or bad – and whether it plays any role in weight loss. Even in scientific circles, it’s controversial. On the basics, there are two seemingly opposite points of view :

  1. Diet soda can result in weight loss: A study published by Tordorff MG and Aleva AM found that drinking large amounts of artificially sweetened soda as compared with soda containing sugar may help control calories, which is a key element to losing weight.
  • Diet soda can result in weight gain: Another study – published on the Jama Network asserts that artificial sweeteners result in cravings, leading to increased calorie intake and the weight gain that results.

This can be confusing – especially for those who are looking at diet sodas as part of a weight reduction program, even for those who are just looking for their daily “fix”. Drilling down into these theories, there are many different aspects to examine a little more closely.

Nutritional Value of Diet Soda

Most people are well aware that diet soda has very little nutritional value. But the devil is in the details. Looking at the labels, we find that most diet sodas contain these ingredients, in the order of the highest percentage found in the soda:

  • Carbonated Water: This is water, with carbon dioxide dissolved into it
  • Sweeteners: These are artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. Stevia – a plant-based sweetener, is often categorized as an artificial sweetener as it does not qualify as “sugar”.
  • Acids: Adding a tart element, acids such as citric acid, carbonic acid, and phosphoric acid (to prevent mold) are part of the mix
  • Artificial colorants:  Caramels, carotenoids, and anthocyanins are generally present in diet soda.
  • Artificial flavors: These are chemical elements – not derived from organic sources such as fruit, that add flavor
  • Preservatives: Potassium benzoate is the most common preservative to extend the shelf life of soda
  • Sodium: One 12 ounce can of diet coke contains 40mg
  • Caffeine: A central nervous system stimulant, this does not have nutritive value
  • Vitamins and minerals: A nominal amount may be included, but this is usually a sales pitch, rather than added value

It’s not necessary to be a scientist to figure out that there really is very little nutritional value to diet sodas. While it’s necessary to drink water – the core component, diet sodas certainly don’t feature on must-have lists to survive.

Are Diet Sodas Harmful to Health?

Many studies have looked at the health benefits and detrimental effects of diet soda. Over decades, scientists have looked at the finer aspects. Their findings make interesting reading.

  • An increase in metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes: In 2009, Jennifer A Nettleton, Ph.D. et al found that there is an association between these conditions and diet soda
  • Obesity: Another study – mentioned above, confirms that the intake of artificial sweeteners often leads to a sugar craving. Unconsciously, people will increase the amount of sugar they consume from other sources, leading to weight gain – and sometimes obesity
  • Cancer: Although some studies suggest a slight increase in male lymphoma and multiple myeloma, there is no definitive link, although The Ramazzini Institute – after conducting a study on rats and mice (although the results are disputed), found that aspartame increased the prevalence of malignant tumors in many organs. They also found that a study of pregnant subjects noted increased malignancies in their offspring.
  • Mental health: Study author Honglei Chen, MD, Ph.D. with the National Institutes of Health in Research, Triangle Park in North Carolina found – in a study of 263,925 participants, that 30% of participants who drank at least four cans of soda daily were at a higher risk of developing depression than those who did not
  • Osteoporosis: Caffeine and phosphorus can negatively affect the absorption of calcium, and researchers at Tufts University found that those who regularly drink 3 or more cans of cola sodas had a reduced bone density in the hip area of almost 4%
  • Hormonal imbalances: Ghrelin – a hormone found in the gut, stimulates food ingestion and releases a growth hormone. Nicknamed the “hunger hormone” as they a partially responsible for controlling hunger, these cells sense sweeteners, and could in the Ramazinni Institute’s study mentioned above, researchers also found increased ghrelin levels after high doses of aspartame were ingested

From these studies, it’s probably safe to say that – while a few diet sodas here and there are unlikely to have much effect, it’s all about quantities. Given that diet soda offers a tiny nutritional benefit, it hardly seems worth the risks.

Do diet sodas get you drunker?

Interestingly, people who use sugar-free mixers don’t seem to feel more or even less drunk than their friends who are imbibing with a sugar-based soda as a mix.

Cecile Marczinski, a cognitive psychologist, and the author of a study on this subject doesn’t agree. She found that using diet soda as a mix made people drunker, as the lack of sugar resulted in the alcohol being absorbed into the bloodstream. This was demonstrated through breathalyzer tests. Diet soda mixed with alcohol showed a breath alcohol rate of .091 as compared to .077 in the case of the same amount of alcohol mixed with a sugar-based soda.

The implications are concerning. With an effect on driving abilities – and other cognitive functions, this could have disastrous consequences.

Diet soda addictions

Although diet soda addiction is not a recognized term, some of its ingredients have addictive qualities. Caffeine, sodium, and artificial sweeteners can have people hooked in a very short space of time.  But for those who drink substantial amounts of diet soda daily, eliminating their daily hit by going cold turkey can have some ugly consequences.

The effects can be physical withdrawal symptoms – such as headaches and a thirst that is only quenched by diet soda, or mental – like finding yourself daydreaming about a diet soda. And then there are also the cravings to deal with.

The reason for this is mainly what is called the dopamine effect. Dopamine – aka “the happy hormone”, releases a feeling of pleasure from sensors in the brain, with different people having varying levels of pleasure.

Addiction is also often supported by habit, and while it usually takes a week or two to recover from the withdrawal effects, it takes a lot longer to change a habit. The so-called 21-day rule works for some, but breaking habits requires constant monitoring – and a lot of work on identifying and dealing with triggers.

Are there benefits to drinking diet soda?

With all the troublesome aspects, it is difficult to conceive how diet sodas can benefit anyone. But it can:

  • Diabetics need to control the amount of sugar in their blood and sugar-based soda can be fatal. A reasonable amount of diet soda as part of a healthy diet enables diabetics to live normally without their wellness being affected
  • In controlling weight gain, diet soda is a good choice over a drink laden in sugar – provided that sugar isn’t eaten in other products to make up for the lost calories. It satisfies the taste buds and helps to reduce the feeling of being deprived.
  • Caffeine-free alternatives are available, and while these still have some risks, the addictiveness is reduced, making it easier to resist the craving to overindulge.
  • Diet Coke is not unlike regular coke when it comes to building a volcano. By adding a mentos sweet, it will create an eruption but be warned – this is extremely dangerous and can result in serious consequences, including death. Don’t – under any circumstances, try this without a science teacher.

To drink diet soda, or not?

Tab – the first diet soda, was first produced in 1963, and ever since, consumers have been wondering whether it is a good or bad alternative. Some people swear by them, while others will refuse to drink them – with many other reactions in between.

Does diet soda make you fat? Diet soda and weight loss is a subject that has been discussed around the world since 1963 and – after diet coke came onto the market in 1982, the debates heated up. Yet there’s still no definitive answer other than “It depends who you ask.”

But did you know that a can of diet soda will float in water? But the same size regular soda will start sinking because the sugar it contains is denser than sweetener – affecting buoyancy.

Fun facts aside, we all want to enjoy life to the fullest, and sometimes, enjoying a diet soda is part of our journey. Yet there are many – equally enjoyable alternatives. Iced herbal teas – with or without fruit, sparkling water, coconut water, or even delicious freshly squeezed lemonade can satisfy thirst just as easily as diet soda. And there are much better ways to reach a goal weight without the risks, but diet soda is not about to make a disappearance any time soon.


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