Diet Soda Does Not Make You Fat

Today’s round of pearl clutching by the food paranoiacs is brought on by the absolutely unsurprising news that zero-calorie beverages (aka, diet sodas) do not make you pile on the pounds. Worse, it may be that indulging in some sweet sips of one’s favorite diet soda may make it easier to stay on a reduced calorie diet.

The various articles reporting on this logically obvious bit of news are falling all over themselves to discredit the research by any means possible. They cite that the study was commissioned by the American Beverage Industry, so it’s obviously got to be biased and wrong! And someone found a study participant who preferred to be drinking only water! And everyone is dusting off the belief by “experts” that drinking sweet sodas that don’t have calories just won’t be satisfying and will impel the drinkers to hunt down and gorge (Gorge, I tell you!) on high sugar foods!

Get a grip, people.

The entire argument against diet sodas is based on a guess that because these beverages behave like water or black coffee (with no change to glucose/insulin/ghrelin/etc.) and not like beverages with sugar, people will “unlearn” feeling satiated after drinking sugar water and so will consume more food to make up for loss of a sugar rush.

Yeah, the logic is pretty tortured. It singles out one particular beverage product and then does hand wringing because it fails to have the negative after-effects of downing a bunch of sugar water. Their guess is that people who drink a lot of diet soda then go out and consume many more calories of other sweetened food, and therefore, diet soda consumption leads to weight gain.  They have no evidence besides weight gain – no actual diet/intake diaries, for example – to account for why someone who drinks many cans of soda would gain weight. Perhaps because constant consumption of sweet canned beverages is indicative of other diet/calorie related issues? Perhaps because the subjects know they have health issues and select diet sodas to reduce added sugar and calories in their overall diet? Perhaps because someone with a family history of heart disease likes Diet Coke? We don’t know. We don’t have control groups like people who don’t drink any canned/bottled beverage. We don’t have control groups of people consuming identical amounts of caloric sweetened beverages. We don’t know if the study subjects were pre-screened for the presence of heart problems, diabetes, or high blood pressure (or for family predispositions for these health problems), just that they manifested them whilst drinking diet sodas in huge quantities.

Let’s do a different comparison. Let’s compare people who drink coffee with stevia versus those who drink coffee with regular sugar in it. By the above standards, me drinking a cup of stevia sweetened coffee is bad because I will not be signaled to be “satiated” by the non-caloric beverage in my stomach, whereas my coffee with “real” sugar would have done this, so I’m not learning to drink less coffee and I might even be tempted to buy a scone, instead of being satisfied with the sugar-enhanced coffee. Formally, it is the same – a beverage without sugar calories but with a sweet taste should be just as disruptive to a person’s health as the same beverage with sugar calories. We can test this with tea, too. The point is, the anti-sweetener zealotry tends to remain focused on soda pop rather than on the sweeteners as such, showing the selection bias of the researchers.

To be fair, I don’t buy the line by the beverage association that zero-calorie beverages are just the same as water in my diet, or that they are constructive in attempts to lose weight (i.e., I will have greater success at weight loss if I deliberately drink zero-calorie beverages), because these companies have a financial interest in keeping me consuming their products regardless of sugar content. In that way, they are like diet industry companies that use some basic nutritional info to push their offerings. Thanks, kids, but I can put together my own nutritional needs profile.

The other part of the diet soda hysteria is the silence about the amounts of zero-calorie sweetened beverages that people are actually ingesting. Are these negative health issues happening to people who drink a can of Diet Coke in the afternoon for a little caffeine boost? Who have a bottle of zero-calorie sweetened iced tea with lunch? Are these results happening in significant parts of the population who drink moderate amounts of the beverages, or is this manifesting itself mostly in heavy consumers? The studies I can find are only looking at obese people who drink a liter or more of these beverages every day. Are these people who were drinking full-sugar sodas but who have switched to low/no-calorie sodas? And so forth.

Hmm, there’s that pesky idea of “moderation” again, something that neither the food industry nor the food puritans want you to dwell upon. Eating (and drinking) things in moderation does not maximize profits, so it is directly in the food industry’s interest to encourage, persuade, cajole and entice you to eat more. It’s a major driving force behind food ubiquity. Moderation, the idea that something might not be harmful to health when consumed in reasonable amounts, is the enemy of puritanical approaches. Having a single can, or a smaller cup, or a handful less, or including more vegetables that may or may not be organic, will never please these people. You. Must. Abstain. From. It. ALL.

At base, some equivocal research results and a bunch of asshattery from groups with vested interests in getting average consumers to go to consumption extremes (whether the extreme is shovel it down or never touch it) are battling it out in the headlines once again.

My opinion? I don’t think it’s a good idea to drink extremely large amounts of beverages that aren’t water on a daily basis. This is true of coffee, tea, soda, diet soda, fruit juices, energy drinks, Slurpees, milk, wine, beer, hard liquor, and any other beverage of which I am presently unaware. I think it’s probably best to drink mostly water, assuming your water source is safe. (I’m setting aside the environmental problem of bottled water, which I honestly think is a more pressing problem than people drinking diet soda.)  Coffee appears to have the greatest health benefits with the fewest health penalties of any water alternative, but only if you drink it black. Tea and milk are pretty close behind. The rest are probably best drunk in moderation.

The greatest problem with full-sugar sodas is that they have become so ubiquitous that they are drunk to excess. For example, one very big change in how sodas are sold these days versus how they were sold in my childhood is the bottomless cup. When I was kid and the family went out on our very infrequent dining experiences, soda was more expensive than milk and you only got one 8 oz. cup of it for the price. You wanted more? You had to ask for it, and you got charged for it. Now, at pretty much anywhere I go out to eat these days, the soda is usually cheaper than the coffee or the milk and comes with unlimited refills as long as you’re on premise. There’s usually a diet cola option, and all the rest are full-sugar, even the iced tea that is becoming a regular part of the self-service dispensers.

This is the face of food ubiquity. How can or should this be addressed in a way that does not stigmatize or marginalize particular social groups, that does not place economic penalties on low and medium income households in a way that is not equally borne by upper income households, and does not interfere with an adult’s right to choose how to live her life, even if those choices are not optimal? How, in short, is it possible to change consumer preference to select water or coffee or tea or milk over soda?

While you mull that over, I’m going to go pop my afternoon can of Diet Coke and peruse some more headlines.


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Posted in Food, Obesity

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