Are Diet Drinks a Healthy Choice?

Almost every time I go out and speak on diet and health someone asks about diet drinks and artificial sweeteners. Considering that we are hard wired to go for sugar, it’s easy to understand why we would want something with a sugary taste and no calories. But are artificial sweeteners safe? And can they help us lose weight and keep it off?

The upside of artificial sweeteners—including aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Necta Sweet), and sucralose (Splenda)—is they have no calories, and that is a good thing. However, the downside is there are a lot of unknowns about the long-term safety and effectiveness of consuming them.

Saccharin was linked with bladder cancer in animals, but now the Food and Drug Administration says they are safe. Some animal studies also link aspartame to a slight increased risk of cancer. Splenda has a cleaner bill of health so far. However, it’s made by adding chlorine molecules to sugar. Somehow I just can’t imagine ingesting sugar with chlorine!

It would make sense that if you cut out sugary drinks and replace them with a zero calorie artificially sweetened beverage you would lose weight. However, the research on the effectiveness of diet drinks for weight management is mixed. Strangely, some studies have found an increase in weight with the use of artificial sweeteners. Researchers think this may occur because drinking something that is super sweet with no calories may increase your desire for sweet foods and cause you to eat more sweets and calories later.

Artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Splenda, for example, is 600 times sweeter than sugar. I have read that the continual use of these sweeteners actually changes your palate and prevents you from tasting the subtle flavors of other foods.

In terms of health risks, the Framingham Heart Study found a higher risk of metabolic syndrome in people that drank both regular and diet sodas. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions such as high blood pressure, high blood fats, high blood sugar, and belly fat that increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.  Yet another study found a 30-percent decline in kidney function from drinking just two diet sodas a day!

With so many uncertainties, I have never felt comfortable using artificial sweeteners myself, not to mention I don’t like the taste. Although artificially sweetened drinks seem like a better option than sugary drinks in the short term, I don’t recommend them till we know more about their effectiveness and safety. And there are so many tasty and healthy options out there to try now instead. My current favorite is Hint Fizz. Why not try it instead of a diet soda or other artificially sweetened drink? Your taste buds will adapt and soon the super-sweet taste of artificial sweeteners will taste sickeningly sweet and the subtle taste of other drinks will taste just right.

Copyright © 2012 Carole Bartolotto, MA, RD. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Are Diet Drinks a Healthy Choice?

  1. Great article, Carole! I totally agree that you can train your taste buds, the best approach is to enjoy all the great, subtle, non-sugary flavors there are. Too much sweetness just obliterates other flavors.

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  4. Today artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes are found in a variety of food and beverages marketed as “sugar-free” or “diet,” including soft drinks, chewing gum, jellies, baked goods, candy, fruit juice, and ice cream and yogurt. ,;’-

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  5. What do you think about stevia and it’s links to prostate cancer? I read about it on the science in the public’s interest page. Also what is in truvia? Do you have any pages about metabolic syndrome or low glycemic natural sweeteners like agave and coconut sugar?

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