Diet soft drinks may seem like the obvious solution to a sugar craving when losing weight or simply living a healthier lifestyle. But are they really good for your health? Or do they do more harm than good?
Diet soft drinks. Their name alone and the promise of no added sugar suggests that these fizzy beverages are the answer for those wanting a sweet hit without the calories. But are they as healthy as many would like to think?
With sugar swapped for chemically manufactured sweeteners1 and indications that such drinks disrupt the body2, they may not be a healthy alternative after all.
Diet v non-diet: what’s the difference?
For those looking to cut calories and lose weight or simply live a healthier lifestyle, diet soft drinks appear to be the perfect guilt-free treat when a sugar craving strikes.
Some diet drinks boast of containing one calorie compared to 200 in a non-diet alternative2, making it the obvious choice for calorie counters. The reason for this calorie difference is the use of synthetic sweeteners in place of sugar to recreate the sweet taste. But there is more to the matter than simply calories.
Sweeteners may not be what they seem
Concerns over the impact of diet soft drinks on health aren’t new, which has led scientists to conduct studies into how they affect the body. One such study, from Professor Susan Swithers at Purdue University Indiana, looked at how drinks containing sweeteners affected lab rats.
The findings suggest that the drinks alter the way our bodies react to the real sugar we consume, which can lead to weight gain. When our body registers sugar, it prepares itself for the arrival of food. Sweetened drinks send this signal but no food arrives, and Swithers argues that this makes it hard for us to deal with normal sugar.
"When the animals get real sugar they're not as good at processing it, their hormonal responses get blunted, their blood sugar levels go up and it leads to weight gain", commented Swithers.
She also highlights the issue of compensation2. When we have a low-calorie drink, we are more likely to then consume something high-calorie because of the supposed calorie ‘saving’ we’ve made. This can in fact lead to higher calorie consumption.
Diet soft drinks linked to diabetes
Swithers’ statement that sweetened soft drinks can lead to higher blood sugar levels is backed up by a study published in the science journal Nature. In this study, sweeteners affected the animals’ metabolism. Their blood sugar levels rose, which is an early sign that type 2 diabetes could develop. Human volunteers then consumed high volumes of a low-calorie sweetener, with half of them showing the same signs as the animals3.
More evidence is needed before claims over the link between sweeteners and diabetes can become fact. However, what is clear is that there are much better alternatives than low-calorie soft drinks if the aim is to lose weight or even to live a healthier lifestyle.
The wider-reaching health issues
The potential impact of sugar-free fizzy drinks on health doesn’t end at weight gain and increased blood sugar levels. The drinks can also cause dental erosion in the same way as a full calorie beverage would. This is because diet drinks contain phosphoric acid, which damages teeth and can lead to cavities4.
Research conducted at the University of Michigan compared the effects of diet and regular soda on teeth, and the findings showed little difference. After two weeks of exposure to a full calorie fizzy drink, 2.8mg/cm2 had been eroded, while teeth in the diet beverage showed an erosion of 3 mg/cm2.
Worryingly, individuals have shown addictions to diet soft drinks, putting them at higher risk of the health issues we’ve discussed. The drink’s addictive qualities reportedly come from the chemical cocktail they contain.
Among these chemicals, the synthetic sweetener Aspartame is seen as the main culprit that causes addiction5.
Is the risk worth taking?
Claims surrounding the exact impact of diet soft drinks on health will persist until solid evidence is found. What is clear however is that dropping low-calorie soft drinks from your diet won’t have any negative impact on your health. Carbonated water or fruit teas are two alternatives you can choose to quench your thirst with something satisfying and nutritious.
If you would like to know how you can improve your own diet and the health benefits this will bring consider a dietary consultation with one of our clinical or consultant dieticians.
To find out more call us on 0800 101 0337 or make an online enquiry.