by Monica Mollica
The potential benefits and risks of artificial sweeteners and diet sodas are hotly debated. Critics state that artificial sweeteners and diet sodas are fueling obesity [1, 2], increasing the risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease [2, 3], and of causing metabolic derangements.
A popular argument against consumption of sweet-tasting but non-caloric or reduced-calorie food and beverages is that this interferes with appetite and physiological energy intake regulation.
In March 2015, an observational study was published which created headlines warning that diet soda intake is linked to growing bellies. However, as is often the case with observational studies that reach contradictory conclusions (see below on the current state of evidence), the study has several weaknesses. To start with – the study, which was small, only included people aged 65 years and older. The data was collected in the early 1990s to early 2000. Thus the study data is over 10 years old now. Importantly, dietary intake data (aside diet sodas) are not available. It should be pointed out that the survey was done during a time when low-fat / high-carb public health campaigns were at their peak and when the general population had a relatively high-carb intake. This low-fat / high carb eating increases fat synthesis in the body and spikes levels of blood fats (triglycerides);[6, 7] this in turn is often associated with obesity and, in particular, belly fat (visceral fat).[8-10] Hence, without knowing calories consumed from fat and carb, the link between diet soda and growing bellies is grossly misleading. And if we were to assume that the result is really caused by diet soda intake, the real life significance of a 0.83 in (2.11 cm) waist gain in diet soda drinkers vs. 0.3 in (0.77 cm) in non-diet soda drinkers – i.e. a difference of half an inch (1.34 cm) over 10 years – is negligible and could as well have been caused by mild bloating. Or simply a measurement error; measuring people’s waist with a measuring tape and reporting those waist measures in two decimal points is a red flag itself.
When looking at the totality of evidence from different types of research in humans (observational studies and interventions studies), the conclusion is that artificial sweeteners and diet sodas do not result in fat gain or fuel obesity.[11-13]
Overall, existing studies using widely differing methodologies in various types of consumers (men, women, lean, obese, never obese, formerly obese), reach largely convergent conclusions: the use of low-energy sweeteners shows no consistent association with an increased appetite for sugar or sweet products  To the contrary, in the large majority, the use of low-energy sweeteners is associated with a lower intake of sweet tasting substances. Many studies support this.[12, 13] Findings from observational studies show no association between low-calorie sweetener intake and body weight or fat mass. And data from randomized controlled trials – which provide the highest quality of evidence for examining cause-and-effect outcomes – indicate that substituting low-calorie sweetened options for their regular-calorie versions actually results in a modest weight loss and may be a useful dietary tool to improve compliance with weight loss or weight maintenance programs.
As always, one has to look at the whole picture, there is no single magic bullet or single devil. Many times, a myopic focus on one single parameter distracts attention away from more important issues.
Dr. Taylor Wallace, PhD at the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, concisely highlights three good points on the topic of “The Real Problem with Consuming Diet Beverages”.
The Real Problem With Consuming Diet Beverages
by Dr. Taylor Wallace
The debate over whether diet beverages are good, bad, or just okay for us never seems to end. There’s definitely a lot of misinformation about diet beverages in the public eye that is not based on strong research designed to test cause and effect.
Point 1: Consuming a diet beverage vs. a 180-calorie can of soda that’s packed with sugar is definitely advantageous for health.
Point 2: Artificial sweeteners, caramel color, caffeine and other ingredients added to diet beverages are safe and there is no credible evidence that these ingredients cause cancer, weight gain, or other harmful conditions. A recent clinical study at the University of Colorado at Denver actually demonstrated that consumption diet beverages (as compared to water) helped individuals lose weight over a 12-week period (click here). Likewise, most clinical studies on consuming moderate levels of caffeine (<200-300 mg daily) have shown benefits on alertness and potential decreases in the risk of developing dementia later in life.
So what’s the real problem with diet beverages? The high acid content of diet beverages is bad for your teeth and may affect the health of your bones long-term when consumed chronically.
Point 3: Your body maintains a normal pH of about 7.35-7.45. Chronic consumption of acidic foods and beverages (e.g. diet beverages) may slightly decrease your body’s pH to the lower end of this spectrum. Your body compensates for the added acidity by releasing calcium salts from the bone to offset or “buffer” the extra acidity. Consuming 1-2-3+ diet beverages a day with other acidic foods over a few years may cause bone loss. Non-fat milk, fruits, and vegetables may help offset acidic diets since they also have “buffering” power.
I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t ever drink a diet beverage (I personally consume diet beverages). Moderation is always the key… one diet beverage every now and then won’t hurt. Just don’t go overboard.
Monica Mollica holds a Master degree in Nutrition from the University of Stockholm / Karolinska Institue, Sweden. She has also done PhD level course work at renowned Baylor University, TX. Having lost her father in a lifestyle-induced heart attack at an age of 48, she is a strong advocate of primary prevention and early intervention, and the development of lifestyle habits for health promotion at all ages. Today, Monica is sharing her solid medical research expertise and real-life hands-on-experience and passion for health and fitness by offering nutrition / supplementation / exercise / health consultation services, and working as a medical writer specializing in health promotion, fitness and anti-aging. She is currently in the process of writing a book on testosterone, covering health related issues for both men and women.
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