You might think you’re making a healthy choice when you pick diet soda over regular, but studies are showing very much the opposite is true.
“The more diet soda a person drinks, the more likely they are to gain weight,” said Epidemiologist Sharon Fowler of the University of Texas Health Science Center. Fowler conducted a study on soda consumption for the American Diabetes Association.
Research has found that the artificial sweeteners in diet soda may actually alter brain chemistry and change the way our bodies metabolize food. While your taste buds sense sweet, there is no calorie intake along with it. This tricks the brain into thinking it needs to consume more calories to balance it out. Without realizing it, your body craves and holds on to more calories from other meals to make up for the loss.
As the consumption of artificially sweetened foods has risen over the last 30 years, so has the rate of obesity. More than one in four Americans are obese, meaning they have a body mass index (BMI) above 30. Obesity is now edging out smoking as the number one preventable killer in the U.S. causing roughly 400,000 deaths each year.
Another study by Purdue University revealed that rats on diets containing the artificial sweetener saccharin, a popular sweetener in diet soda, overate and gained more weight than rats given food with real sugar.
“The body’s natural ability to regulate food intake and body weight may be weakened when this natural relationship is impaired by artificial sweeteners,” said Professor Terry Davidson, an expert in behavioral neuroscience who led the study. “Without thinking about it, the body learns that it can use food characteristics such as sweetness and viscosity to gauge its caloric intake. The body may use this information to determine how much food is required to meet its caloric needs.”
Over time, your body may be fooled to believe that other sweet foods don’t have enough calories – even if they were sweetened with real sugar – and loaded with fat. Your brain may not send out the “full” signal that you’ve had enough until it’s too late. This leads to prolonged problems of overeating and weight gain.
“Our bodies translate information about perceived calories into a gauge to tell us when to stop eating,” said Susan Swithers, a developmental psychobiologist at Purdue.
“Increased consumption of artificial sweeteners and of high-calorie beverages is not the sole cause of obesity, but it may be a contributing factor,” Swithers said. “It could become more of a factor as more people turn to artificial sweeteners as a means of weight control and, at the same time, others consume more high-calorie beverages to satisfy their cravings.”
Another problem? Drinking a lot of soda may lead you to need more and more sweet tasting foods.
Cindy Moore, M.S., R.D., Director of Nutrition Therapy at Cleveland Clinic, says it’s similar to those who crave salty foods. “People can get so accustomed to food with high salt content that they think anything less salty tastes bland,” explains Ms. Moore. “The same can happen with sweets, where you need higher and higher sweetness levels."