Does that come as a surprise to anybody? I sure hope not. As a fairly regular imbiber of the stuff (both Tab and fountain diet Coke are my favorite caffeine-delivery vehicles), though, I was a bit alarmed at the sudden frequency of eyebrow-raising headlines, tweets, and Facebook posts I was seeing in the past few weeks.
”Can diet soda make you fat?”
“Diet soda too dangerous to drink every day?”
“Diet sodas may not be much better than their sugar-filled counterparts.”
Could this be? Is diet soda defying the basic laws of food thermogenics? Probably not, at least not when you look deeper into the research. As with most headlines, what you see in large, bold-faced type is not the whole story. But what was prompting a sudden burst of alarming headlines about diet sodas being linked to stroke, heart attack, and weight gain?
These headlines are not new. There has been ongoing research looking for an association between diet soda and health for years. Last February 2011, fear abounded when a new study proclaimed “Diet Soft Drink Consumption Associated with an Increased Risk of Vascular Events in the Northern Manhattan Study.” This small study revealed a significant increase in risk of stroke or heart attack for two-a-day diet soda drinkers, when compared to non-soda drinkers. YIKES. But news outlets like Good Morning America and Forbes were quick to quell fears by pointing out the weak study design, and summarized that the research was at best, preliminary. More and better research is needed before any concrete associations can be made.
Then, in June 2011, a much stronger study was published looking at the association between diet soda intake and waist circumference (a sign of abdominal obesity) in adults. The results were alarming: compared to non-drinkers, diet soda drinkers had a 70% increase in waist circumference over 10 years, and two-a-day drinkers had a 500% increase in waist circumference. The researchers were careful to control for confounding factors like smoking, physical activity, age, and education level. Unfortunately, they did not appear to control for dietary quality — surely one of the primary factors in weight change.
Finally, in April 2012, there was a study published that looked at the relationship between diet soda consumption and health outcomes like weight, blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome (a nasty combination of increased belly fat, high blood sugars and triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and high blood pressure, all working in concert to increase your chance of heart attack and stroke).
Wisely, they didn’t look at just diet soda intake. They also looked at quality of diet. Brilliant, right? They categorized people based on whether they followed a ”prudent” diet (rich in fish, whole grains, fruit, veggies, and dairy) or a more “Western” diet (higher in fast food, meat, poultry, pizza, and snacks). Not surprisingly, the healthiest people in the study were those who followed a prudent diet and drank no soda at all. However, the second healthiest group were people who followed a prudent diet and drank diet soda. Both these groups had lower risks of developing metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, or high triglycerides. Who were the least healthy people in the study? A no-brainer: those who followed a Western diet had an increased risk of heart disease, whether or not they drank diet soda.
So, what’s the moral of this story? Diet soda is not a health food, but neither does the body of research support its banishment from the planet. It can be a savior for those looking for a simple, painless way to decrease calories in their diet. But, is it a NEUTRAL component of your diet? Maybe not. The research is still developing. Questions abound on whether artificial sweeteners induce cravings for sweets and other carbohydrates. There’s also the potential for a psychological effect — that old joke about the super-sized diet soda canceling out the calories in the triple cheeseburger and large fries Are folks justifying the intake of less healthy foods when they are consuming a diet beverage? Now THAT would be an interesting study!
For today, I think it’s safe to say that the story on healthy eating has not changed. A diet rich in lean, high quality protein, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and low-fat dairy is still the way to go to ensure good health. Diet soda in moderate amounts (i.e., a few times a week) is unlikely to have a negative impact in the context of this healthy diet. I certainly wouldn’t add it to your diet if you have survived this long without it. Water is still the best choice for keeping your body hydrated. Tap, bottled, seltzer – however you like it.
Does any of this apply to kids? No! I do not believe that soda of any kind deserves a place in the everyday (or even everyweek) diets of kids. Their beverage priorities are low-fat dairy and water. Period. A small portion of juice can be a good source of Vitamin C, but, nutritionally speaking, it pales in comparison to the whole fruits from which it came. In our house, the kids enjoy soda (or some other sugary beverage) once or twice a month, when we make pizza or have a cookout. They drink low-fat milk throughout the day (we go through 6 gallons a week), water for sporting events, and occasionally Gatorade when the weather calls for it. Since this is how it has always been, it hasn’t been as hard as you might think to stick with these expectations as they have gotten older and more independent.
Whew! That was exhausting, putting that all out there! Please, let’s get back to plain ol’ recipes tomorrow In the meantime, I welcome your comments on the diet soda controversy as well as your take on the role of soda in the diets of your kids.
Have a wonderful day!