Diet soft drinks: Hard on your health

“Give me a bacon double cheeseburger, large fries and a diet soda,” my psychologist friend ordered during our lunch meeting. “You know,” she continued with a wink, “to reverse the calories!” I was appalled but not surprised at her behavior, and the irony. “Oh, come on!” she said in response to my look. “You know you’ve been guilty of ordering the same.”

In truth, I have made such decisions in the past. But after reading studies that show diet sodas actually makes you gain weight and severely increases your risk of life-threatening diseases, I choose not to drink them. When I mentioned this to my friend, she scoffed, “Diabetes from regular soda or heart disease from diet soda, pick your evil.” What an appalling justification. I suppose never drinking soda, period, ever entered her mind — or the minds of millions of other Americans.

What is most upsetting is that because of “common knowledge,” people think they save their health by choosing diet soft drinks. Their ignorance isn’t their fault, because the misconception that diet soda represents a calorie-free healthy beverage has been widely disseminated. Advertising and common sense promise that zero calories equals zero effect on your weight and health. Medical doctors have stated repeatedly that the body treats diet sodas as water because they have no calories, so go ahead and drink them to lose weight or at least not add unwanted pounds by drinking calories.

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Diet Disbelief

And why wouldn’t we believe in the benign nature of diet soft drinks? Even a statement by Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., of the respected Mayo Clinic tells us they’re OK: “Drinking a reasonable amount of diet soda a day, such as a can or two, isn’t likely to hurt you. The artificial sweeteners and other chemicals currently used in diet soda are safe for most people, and there’s no credible evidence that these ingredients cause cancer. Some types of diet soda are even fortified with vitamins and minerals.”

The Mayo Clinic and our collective common sense are wrong — dead wrong. In fact, diet sodas cause weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, metabolic syndrome and much more. Recent research proves it.

On June 27, two studies by the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio were presented at the American Diabetes Association’s Scientific Sessions conference. The first showed that weight gain around the waist, including obesity, was associated with drinking merely a single can of diet soda per day. The second study showed that the sugar substitute found in many diet sodas, aspartame, is linked to elevated blood sugar, which can lead to diabetes.

Unhealthy Relationships

Researchers examined the relationship between the daily consumption of diet soda and extended changes in waist circumference in 474 participants between the ages of 65 and 74. A baseline of height, weight, waist circumference and diet soda intake was recorded at the start of the nearly 10-year study. Follow-up measurements were taken three times, once every 3.6 years. Using the same measures as the baseline, the mean waist circumference was examined for diet soda drinkers and non-drinkers with adjustments made for a variety of demographic variables.

There was a 70 percent greater increase in waist circumference among those who drank diet soft drinks as compared to those who didn’t. What’s more, waist circumference was estimated at 63 percent greater in daily soft drink drinkers than in non-drinkers. And among those who drank more than two diet beverages per day, their average increase in waist circumference was 500 percent greater than non-drinkers. (Read full abstract here.)

Unhealthy Results

What does this mean? According to study head Hannah Gardner, M.D., “Our results suggest that diet soda may not be a substitute for sugar sweetened beverages. We saw a significant increased risk among those who drank diet soda daily.” When Gardner examined the results of the studies in the context of cardiovascular disease, she found those who drank diet soft drinks daily had a whopping 61 percent higher incidence of heart disease than those who did not drink soda. And the mind-boggling part: They found no difference in the study results whether the participants drank diet soda or regular sweetened soda — no difference at all.

Let us now consider the studied ill effects of aspartame, one of the popular artificial sweeteners, as presented at the meeting. The study, headed by Ganesh Halade, Ph.D., and Gabriel Fernandez, Ph.D., examined the relationship between fasting glucose (blood sugar) and insulin levels in mice fed aspartame. Their conclusion, “Heavy aspartame exposure might potentially directly contribute to increased blood glucose levels, and thus contribute to the associations observed between diet soda consumption and the risk of diabetes in humans.” (You can read more here.)

Unfortunate Consequences

Despite logic seeming to tell us that consuming zero-calorie beverages should add no weight and not affect our risk of illness, these studies warn of the immense danger we place ourselves in when consuming even a single can of diet soda — diet or regular. In concluding their findings, Helen P. Hazuda, Ph.D., said: “Data from this and other prospective studies suggest that the promotion of diet sodas and artificial sweeteners as healthy alternatives may be ill-advised. They may be free of calories but not of consequences.”

If we return to the attitude of my lunch partner, that we should “pick your evil,” I respond: It is better to choose something different to drink altogether. Why be a self-imposed victim and choose the lesser of two evils when there are non-evil options available? Knowledge is power. Now that you know soda of any sort is a killer, stop drinking it and save a life: Your life.

Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.