We’ve all heard orders like this: “I’ll have a double cheeseburger, large fries and an ice cream cone. And a diet soda.”
In a study of the dietary habits of more than 22,000 Americans, University of Illinois researchers linked diet soda consumption to an increased intake of foods loaded with cholesterol, fat, sodium and sugar. In other words, if you choose diet drinks, you’re more likely to reach for unhealthy snacks, as well.
OMRF scientist and endocrinologist Hal Scofield, M.D., said these findings should come as no real surprise. But should you point the finger at the Coke Zero or at the face in the mirror?
“It’s really not the diet drinks per se,” said Scofield. “It’s using a diet drink as an excuse to have an extra piece of cake or another slice of pizza. People often use diet sodas to justify horrible food choices.”
Yes, you’re getting rid of empty calories by ditching the sugar-heavy sodas in favor of low- or no-calorie options, said Scofield, but research indicates that the majority of people will make up those calories with junk food.
The Illinois study reviewed 10 years of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which was led by the National Center for Health Statistics, in an effort to uncover hidden dietary trends. The study requested that participants document everything they ate or drank over the course of two nonconsecutive days.
One of the most pronounced discoveries was that people who drank diet beverages consumed an average of 49 more calories from so-called “discretionary foods” compared to people who did not drink diet beverages. The study describes discretionary foods as those that belong to no specific food group and are nonessential to the human body, like ice cream, fries and chips.
These numbers were more skewed toward obese individuals in the study, as they consumed 73 additional calories from discretionary foods when they chose diet soda.
While consumers of diet beverages took in fewer calories overall than those who gravitate toward sugary or alcoholic drinks, they took in a greater overall percentage of discretionary foods.
While the exact reason is not clear, Scofield said he believes it to be more correlation than causation.
“All kinds of studies link diet sodas with insulin resistance and obesity, but it’s not necessarily because of the diet sodas themselves,” said Scofield. “People who have those problems — obesity and Type 2 diabetes — reach for diet drinks because they think it’s healthier, but the rest of their food choices may be poor. Either that or they’re trying to make up for bad food choices by grabbing a Diet Coke.”
Scofield added that there is no definitive scientific link between diet sodas or artificial sweeteners and an increase in these cravings. “That’s a popular Internet theory, but if there is any evidence, I haven’t heard about it. Really, it boils down to the decisions we make.”
The soda study doesn’t reach any medical conclusions other than to suggest that switching to diet drinks is not a clear path to successful weight loss and may, in fact, contribute to a new problem with compensation.
“Theoretically, if you eat right and don’t substitute bad foods and extra helpings into your diet along with diet drinks, you shouldn’t gain weight,” he said. “The key is making healthy decisions. To be your healthiest, choose water over soda of any kind.”