Are There Hidden Risks to Diet Soda?

It’s no secret that soda is not the healthiest option to quench our thirst, but many turn to diet soda thinking it is healthier than its original counterpart. Unfortunately, besides there being no research that a diet soda is better for your health or your waistline, new research shows the drink might also be tied to an increased risk of certain health conditions.

We spoke to Madge Barnes, M.D., a primary care physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Family Care – Grand Prairie, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, to learn more about health conditions to which frequent diet soda intake can contribute.

“For those who desire the carbonation or caffeine of a soda, diet soft drinks might not be the healthiest alternative,” Barnes says. “Daily consumption of more than three or four diet sodas can cause an increased risk for medical conditions, with weight gain or obesity being the most common.”

Although switching to a diet or “lite” soda may seem like a smart move if you’re trying to lose weight or maintain your current weight, studies show the opposite to be true. Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio recently found that study subjects who drank two or more diet sodas a day had an increase in waist size 500 percent greater than those who didn’t drink diet soda. The study which pulled data from 474 participants over a decade-long period, also found that diet soft drink users, in general, experienced 70 percent greater increases in waist circumference compared with non-users.

Barnes says that while diet soft drinks may be free of calories, they’re not free of consequences.

“People tend to have a false sense of security when drinking diet soda, so they are more likely to overeat,” she explains. “Artificial sweeteners might also ‘trick the brain’ into craving rich, high-calorie foods, leading to weight gain.”

It may seem contradictory that a sugar-free drink can help contribute to type 2 diabetes, but research has shown that to be the case.

Research at the University of Minnesota in 2009 suggests that even one diet soda per day was associated with a 36 percent increase in diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The excess weight that diet soda drinkers tend to carry can also be a contributing factor to developing the disease.

Barnes says artificial sweeteners in diet sodas also tend to be 200 to 600 times sweeter than regular sugar, which can make tastes buds more sensitive to sugar and increase sugar cravings.

In addition, new research has also shown that frequent diet soda use can also increase the risk of dementia and stroke.

Over a decade, researchers studied nearly 3,000 people over the age of 45 to see if sugar- and artificially-sweetened beverages affected their risk of stroke. They also studied nearly 1500 people over the age of 60 to see if those drinks affected their risk of dementia. Of those studied, 97 cases of stroke and 81 cases of dementia were recorded.

Although sugar-sweetened drink consumption is not associated with stroke or dementia, the study, published in the journal Stroke, found that artificially-sweetened beverage consumption is associated with a higher risk.

“Several studies have linked daily consumption to a 45 percent higher risk of heart attack, stroke and early death,” Barnes says. “There is also a 30 percent increase in the risk of ruptured blood vessels in the brain, leading to a hemorrhagic stroke.”

If you drink diet soda for the carbonation, Amanda Jimenez, M.D., an internist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Flower Mound, suggests reaching for a naturally flavored sparkling water, instead.

“Cherry Lime and Watermelon Kiwi are two of my favorites and there are 20-plus flavors to choose from,” Jimenez says.

If it’s the caffeine you crave, coffee and tea that have not been sweetened contain very few calories and carbohydrates, and both have been shown to have health benefits.

Barnes says it’s important to note that much dietary research just identifies correlation — when two events occur together — and can’t tell definitely whether one thing causes another. For instance, people who find their blood sugar moving upward may start drinking diet cola to compensate, rather than the diet drinks causing their metabolic problems.

However, with so many question marks abounding, why take the risk? Drinks such as milk contain valuable calcium and protein. Juices, though high in sugar, have occasional merit as sources of vitamin C and other vitamins. And water is the best pure, healthful, no-calorie beverage option around.

“The take-home message is that occasional consumption of diet sodas will likely have little effect on your health if you are otherwise healthy,” she says. “The recommendation is to avoid daily consumption. Less is better, but none is best. Water is the best alternative.”

Need help getting your health back on track? Turn to a Texas Health Physicians Group primary care physician for guidance.

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