Can diet drinks promote obesity?

Michaela Ballmann
Nutrition & Dietetics
Though diet drinks can also aid weight loss, some research is also pointing to the possibility that they can promote weight gain. One proposed reason for this is that by consuming these diet drinks, your taste buds are becoming accustomed to a certain amount of sweetness in your diet, even though there is no or very little actual sugar being consumed. That creates a high sweetness threshold, meaning you will become used to having a certain amount of diet drinks a day and may need more to satisfy you.

Further, these drinks may prime your taste buds for real sugar or calories and may lead you to overeat when you don’t get the energy in the form of calories that your body wants and needs.

Thirdly, a study published in 2008 also found that artificial sweeteners reduced the amount of beneficial gut bacteria in rats. These days we are more aware of the benefits of pre- and pro-biotics, and the importance of healthy bacteria in our intestines. To build up or maintain healthy gut flora, diet drinks wouldn’t be recommended.

Some animal studies have also shown that artificial sweeteners may stimulate insulin release, potentially leading to greater calorie intake at the next meal. Some suspect that after time, insulin resistance would also develop.

All these factors may partially explain artificial sweeteners’ contribution to obesity.
Marilyn Ricci, M.S., R.D.
Nutrition & Dietetics
What you drink can contribute a lot of calories. It is easy for some people to drink 1000 calories a day. Diet sodas have no calories so can be a part of weight reduction. However, it seems that drinking a diet soda on an empty stomach will slightly raise insulin levels causing you to want food to counteract the insulin. Water and selzer with a little juice are better choices to quench thirst. For those on medications that dry out the mouth, choose water. It is the least expensive and best choice.  
Sarah Worden
Nutrition & Dietetics

While there are none or very few calories in diet drinks, there have been some studies done that have shown that they could possible lead to weight gain. What these studies have shown is that drinking artificially sweetended beverages may possibly encourage cravings for other sweet food and drink. By drinking an artificially sweetened beverage, the body becomes used to getting these sweet (sometimes sweeter than sugar) flavors and craves more of that.

Brad Lamm
Addiction Medicine
Our "sweet" set-point is a mess -- as a country. The numbers don't lie. We're the fattest industrialized nation in the world, and even as our sugar consumption has soared, so too has our intake of artificial sweeteners in everything from diet sodas to meal bars, and muffins from the corner store.

Why is this? Well, fake sweetener is exponentially sweeter than sugar and exponentially cheaper too. So while a little goes a long way in your foods, including diet sodas, it doesn't just sweeten the soda, it talks to you.

That fake-sweet diet soda tells you what sweet is.
That fake-sweet diet soda informs you what effervescent is.

So when you have an apple, or piece of naturally sweet fruit like a strawberry -- you think: Wow! That's not sweet!

I encourage folks to give artificial sweeteners a rest. In my book JUST 10 LBS: Easy Steps to Weighing What You Want, I present support, systems and tools to get healthier with food. In my own life, I use only a couple pink a day now, from a high of ten a day snuck into my diet in diet sodas and other foods! I'm no fan of the blue and yellow. Give your body a chance to restart the sweet set-point and see how nature intends you to taste, eat and feel with your food. It needn't be a fight or a war, but getting there might just take you outside your comfort zone.

Have a water. Green tea. Sparkling water, and mint-citrus flavored water too.
Lydia Bartoshuk's work in this area speaks to the role of classical conditioning in why diet drinks can often be contributors to obesity. Basically, if it tastes sweet, our body thinks sugar is coming and reacts accordingly. Behaviorally, what this means is that we are still giving into a craving for sweets -- and while diet sodas don't bring the calories, they continue to facilitate the inclusion of sweet things in our diet -- and many times that means slipping back to sweet and sugary snacks. The behavioral key is to figure out what that craving for sweets is all about -- and try to pull it up by the roots instead of just quieting it with "sugar-lite." Take a minute and determine what it means to "want sweets" and the role they serve -- once that gets figured out, you may not use the substitutes as often.
Michael T. Murray, ND
Naturopathic Medicine
In a landmark analysis, Dr. Matthias B. Schulze of the Harvard School of Public Health and colleagues examined the relationships between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain and diabetes risk in women. What they found was not surprising. Weight gain was highest among women who increased their sugar-sweetened soft drink consumption from one or fewer drinks per week to one or more drinks per day This change resulted in an average weight gain of nearly 2lh pounds per year or about 10 pounds over a four-year period. In addition, women consuming one or more sugar-sweetened soft drinks per day had an 83-percent increased risk for type 2 diabetes compared with those who consumed less than one of these beverages per month.

So you might think that the answer is to switch to diet sodas, right? Unfortunately it's not that simple. Research at the University of Texas actually showed that in an eight-year study 55 percent of those subjects who drank 12 to 24 ounces of diet sodas daily became overweight -- about twice as many as those consuming regular soft drinks with HFCS. In other words, diet soda consumption is twice as likely to lead to obesity as consuming soft drinks sweetened with HFCS. Why? Because it appears the diet drinks confuse the appetite control centers to trigger hunger rather than promote satiety.
Hunger Free Forever: The New Science of Appetite Control

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Judy Caplan
Nutrition & Dietetics

The studies on this are conflicting. However we do know that diet sweeteners are super sweet and may lead to craving sweeter foods more often so you may find yourself eating more sweets. Also some studies show that the body normally adjusts to sugar calories by compensating for those calories later on. With diet sweeteners the thinking is that there is no adjustment later on because the body does not recognize these calories. Consequently you may take in more calories from sweets. Generally it is wise to avoid diet drinks and drink water or unsweetened beverages.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.