Are diet soft drinks a suitable substitute?

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It’s one of the most common tricks in dieting; switching from regular soft drinks to the sugar-free or lite varieties in the hopes that the lack of sugar will reduce body weight. But does it really work? On the surface it would seem obvious that it does.

The average 330ml can of soft drink contains roughly nine teaspoons of sugar – that’s about 630kjs a can in sugar alone. The sugar in soft drinks has been shown to mainly consist of the simple sugar, fructose, which has been linked with a significant increase in belly fat by a study published in the Journal of Nutrition. Liquid sugar has also been linked with an increase in hunger, which then encourages people to eat even more than they usually would.

And it doesn’t stop there, a recent study into sugar, published in the Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care journal, found that sugar can be just as addictive as cocaine, and just as hard to quit. Another study published in Neuroscience, Volume 134 as far back as 2005 already, found that sugar in large quantities triggers a dopamine response in mice, which is linked to feelings of pleasure. The conclusion was that it likely did the same to people.

All in all, based on the evidence it seems sugar is a substance we must avoid if we ever hope to stay healthy, and that’s where diet drinks claim to step in.

Against common sense

Lite, diet, or zero-calorie sodas say they avoid all the problems with regular colas simply by skipping the sugar, and replacing it with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin which they claim contain no Kilojoules at all. If their claim is true then surely diet drinks and weight loss should go hand in hand, and yet a study conducted with people in San Antonio Texas in 2015 bizarrely found the exact opposite.

Somehow, and seemingly against common sense, that study found that increasing diet soda intake was associated with escalating abdominal obesity, “a potential pathway for cardiometabolic risk in this ageing population”.

Additionally, a study published in the journal Nature showed that artificial sweeteners may alter the type and function of the bacteria in your gut microbiome, which would likely affect things as variable as energy levels, and your immune system. Aspartame, which is found in Coke Zero and Sprite Zero, has also been found to decrease the activity of certain enzymes in your gut.

Diet soft drinks have also been linked to depression, and even lower bone density. While drinkers may want to avoid diet drinks as diet drinks result in higher blood alcohol concentrations when consumed with alcohol. Sugar slows down the absorption of the alcohol, giving you a steady, more controllable buzz, while artificial sweeteners do not share this effect.

But perhaps most damningly, diet soft drinks have been shown to increase the risk of metabolic syndrome by up to 30 percent. What is Metabolic syndrome? It’s a metabolism disorder that can cause diabetes, heart problems, weight fluctuations, and even death.

And even if you avoid Metabolic syndrome itself, a study published in the journal “Diabetes Care” has shown that they contribute to an increased risk of type2 diabetes.

Funding Research

Despite the massing evidence for the damage being done by diet drinks, The American Beverage Association shared a statement with CNN in which it said,  “Low-calorie sweeteners are some of the most studied and reviewed ingredients in the food supply today … They are safe and an effective tool in weight loss and weight management, according to decades of scientific research and regulatory agencies around the globe.”

But even this has been put to the sword by a study released in June 2018 that found that much like Tobacco companies have been long known to do, Coca Cola has been funding research to counteract the negative publicity of studies, which are showing the downsides to their beverages.

“The Coca-Cola Company appears to have failed to declare a comprehensive list of its research activities,” concludes the study which was written by Paulo M Serôdio, Martin McKee and David Stuckler from such luminary Universities as Oxford. “Further, several funded authors appear to have failed to declare receipt of funding. Most of Coca-Cola’s research support is directed towards physical activity and disregards the role of diet in obesity. Despite initiatives for greater transparency of research funding, the full scale of Coca-Cola’s involvement is still not known.”

In short, while many people are beginning to understand the downside of regular drinks and the massive amounts of sugar they contain, diet drinks may be at least as dangerous, and should not be considered anything more than an occasional treat just as a regular soda would be.