It’s a hot day, and you’re looking for some refreshment. What better than a can of diet soda? So, you crack open the can and start to enjoy the delicious fizzy drink. But from the first sip, the soda is proving that far from being good for your health, it may be damaging your body.
Health organizations don’t actually care much for diet soda. Even though it’s a drink that is supposed to be good for you, it doesn’t find itself listed as such by any major organization. The American Heart Association urges us to “limit low-calorie sodas.” Elsewhere, the Center for Science in the Public Interest tells us it’s best to give artificial sweeteners a miss.
This hasn’t stopped diet soda from becoming popular, though. The drink was invented back in the 1950s as a way to provide something sweet for people with diabetes, according to Healthline. And it soon became popular with consumers who wanted to cut sugar from their diet or keep their weight down. After all, having your sodas without sugar is a great way to do both.
We all know that having excess sugar can be really bad for our health. Sweet drinks tend to be packed with fructose – a simple sugar that fires up hunger and makes you want to eat. As a result, people who enjoy sugared drinks tend to weigh more than those who don’t, several studies have found. Too much sugar also increases the risk of diabetes.
So it’s no surprise at all that people who don’t want the sugar but do still want to enjoy a soda turn to the diet variety. The latter tastes a lot like its sugary counterparts and uses substitutes such as aspartame or saccharin to provide the sweetness. And the companies that make the diet drinks are happy to say that they are better for you than their other sodas.
Eevidence is, though, beginning to mount that drinking diet soda can be risky. The list of conditions that it’s thought to cause is long, and the more study that is done, the bigger it gets. But where did the diet variety come from in the first place?
People have been enjoying regular carbonated drinks since the late 19th century. But the diet version only started to appear in the 1950s. Brooklyn’s Kirsch Bottling Company was the first to produce a diet drink in 1952, according to Gunther Toody’s. The firm’s sugar-free ginger ale – dubbed No-Cal – was apparently aimed at patients with diabetes at the Jewish Sanitarium for Chronic Disease.
But of course there are only so many diabetics in one sanitarium, so Kirsch started to look further afield for customers. Only a few months after the ginger ale’s debut, the American Heritage website notes that No-Cal began featuring in seven flavors and was grossing up to $6 million. But if you didn’t live in the New York area, you’d never have known No-Cal existed!
Word did get out, though, and Royal Crown Cola’s Diet Rite became the only available beverage of its kind in 1958. Yet it didn’t keep the market all to itself for long – with Coca-Cola’s Tab joining it five years later. You may even remember the pink cans! But what about Pepsi? Well, that firm wouldn’t bring out a diet soda of its own for several years after that.
Originally, the diet sodas used saccharin and cyclamates as sweeteners, according to the Baltimore Sun. But enthusiasm was limited because the idea of avoiding sugar wasn’t really current. Cancer scares with both cyclamates and saccharin – which brought bans – didn’t help. Though in 1982 a new sweetener called aspartame became available, and its sugary taste boosted the popularity of diet drinks.
Diet sodas saw their market share boom in the early 2000s – although they’d slip a little as time went by. Drinks companies looked to replace artificial sweeteners with natural varieties to assuage customers who had heard bad things about diet ingredients. Interestingly, even the word “diet” wasn’t popular with manufacturers, the Baltimore Sun notes.
Even back in 2005, one popular brand looking to attract a young, fit and mostly male demographic went out of its way not to allow the “diet” label to attach itself to its zero-calorie drink. These days, though, the advertising for diet sodas is dominated by athletics and fitness. And it actually has little to say about weight loss.
Still, we know cutting sugar from our diet is good for our health. And sodas are apparently the biggest source of sugar in the American diet. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 12 ounces of soda can include a full ten teaspoons of sugar. Elsewhere too, people are consuming increasing amounts of the beverages as more of them live in cities and are reached by drinks marketers.
The aforementioned educational institution actually ranks sugared beverages stone bottom of the list of healthy drinks. And even though the products provide lots of calories, that doesn’t stop people wanting to eat. The sugared variants don’t even make you feel as full as you would have felt if you’d got the calories from a solid source.
But does sipping diet sodas keep the weight off? Well, the National Weight Control Registry – which keeps an eye on those who have dropped 30 pounds and not put them back on for a year – says yes. Only one in ten of the weight losers has a regular sugary drink compared with six out of ten in the general population.
Regardless of whether the benefit is real, people love their diet sodas. One woman – interviewed by Utah school newspaper The Pawprint – explained her love for one diet brand. She said, “I like the bittersweet taste, and I like caffeine.” And she has some good company in preferring this source of caffeine.
Current U.S. President Donald Trump is well known to enjoy a dozen cans of a diet soda each and every day. He enjoys it for the caffeine boost, which he refuses to get from coffee. Trump explained to Esquire magazine in 2015 that he had not touched coffee since his brother Fred had passed away from alcoholism 34 years earlier.
And Trump’s not the only famous figure who loved to consume diet drinks, of course. German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld famously enjoyed the same brand as Trump. He told Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 2012, “I never drink anything hot; I don’t like hot drinks, [it’s] very strange. I drink [diet soda] from the minute I get up to the minute I go to bed. I can even drink it in the middle of the night, and I can sleep. I don’t drink coffee; I don’t drink tea; I drink nothing else.”
But why are people so keen on guzzling diet sodas? Well, it turns out that your brain releases the neurotransmitters glutamate and dopamine when you ingest aspartame and caffeine in a diet drink. And those neurotransmitters spark a craving for more of the same sensation. Essentially, it’s a kind of addiction.
Though as a doctor explained to the Mayo Clinic website, diet sodas are not really the boosters to your health that they may seem. Katherine Zeratsky wrote, “Some types of diet soda are even fortified with vitamins and minerals. But diet soda isn’t a health drink or a silver bullet for weight loss.”
Having no calories might be the point of the diet drink, but it also means they don’t provide any real nutrition. They’re essentially just cans of bubbly water with sweeteners, flavors, colors, and sometimes caffeine or vitamins or both. With this little substance, you’d think they really would help drinkers lose weight.
Though some studies have discovered that drinking a lot of diet soda is actually linked to a boost in metabolic syndrome and obesity. The very same release of dopamine that makes you want more may make you crave more food, too. Mind you, the science is not clear on this, and there are other possible explanations.
One theory argues that people who don’t eat well also tend to enjoy diet sodas. So it’s the rest of their diet that’s responsible, not what they’re drinking. Indeed, studies that take a more experimental approach have found that you can lose weight by switching out your soda for a diet version. Still, in 2015 the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society reported that senior drinkers of diet soda put on three times the belly fat of those who don’t indulge.
So the picture is a little confused, and it doesn’t help that there is some reason to think there’s bias in the science. That’s because more favorable studies are sometimes funded by the companies that make and use artificial sweeteners. As a result, their results cannot necessarily be taken at face value. And there are plenty of unfavorable outcomes, too.
For instance, an ingredient in diet soda is phosphoric acid – a liquid which prevents mold from growing. It’s not harmful if you drink a little, but it can be risky if you consume a lot. One bad outcome of too much phosphoric acid can be wrinkles, as muscles lose nutrients. And diet soda can also damage your skin in other ways – causing breakouts, for instance.
But if that’s not enough, there’s a host of other possible bad effects, too. Depression, a ruined sense of taste and lower bone mineral density have all been mooted by studies. Particularly bad is the potential effect on your gut. A 2014 study in Nature magazine claimed that sweeteners can hurt gut bacteria. Then a couple of years later, a study from the Canadian Science journal found that aspartame wrecks your levels of gut enzymes. And that can have serious – even fatal – outcomes.
But it gets worse. Healthline cited a study which found that drinking a glass of diet soda a day is enough to double your risk of kidney disease. This may be because of the acid content of the soda. Though again, the possibility exists that it’s simply coincidental because those who drink diet sodas tend to have bad diets anyway.
The potential bad effects reach across the generations, too. The scientific journal JAMA Pediatrics published a study in 2016 that looked at pregnant women and their children a year after they were born. It made grim reading: the moms who enjoyed diet soda had twice the chance of having overweight or obese kids.
Even diabetes is linked with drinking diet sodas – although studies show only a slight increase in danger. Where a study of more than 60,000 women found a 21 percent rise in risk of diabetes with diet soda drinking, this was at least only half as bad an outcome as guzzling sugary drinks. And other studies have confirmed these results.
Yet according to Healthline, a review suggested that the diet soda itself was not the culprit in causing diabetes. It turns out that again the people who drink diet soda a lot tend to have other issues that could explain the link. But it’s not known which explanation best fits what the studies show.
One doctor – professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health endocrinologist David Ludwig – was skeptical that we even have reason to be all that concerned. He told Web MD website that in his view it would need further research, adding, “We need more clinical trials.” On that note, Ludwig had done a trial of his own.
In 2012 Ludwig had split 224 obese or overweight young people into two groups. One kept on drinking sugared beverages; the other drank diet sodas instead. A year later, the diet soda gang had lost a bit more weight than the others. Though a further year saw their weights level out. He says that this trial – and all that have been done – just wasn’t long enough to say anything about diabetes.
Another researcher called Matthew Pase and his team looked at health information from a ten-year period to see whether drinking diet soda was more likely to cause strokes and dementia. Pase and his group accounted for all the factors that might affect health. And they subsequently concluded that drinking diet soda increased your chances of both by three times.
But Pase was quick to point out that it wasn’t as frightening as it first looked. Only 81 people he studied out of 1,500 had acquired dementia, and only 97 of 3,000 had experienced a stroke. He told Web MD, “At the end of the day, we’re talking about small numbers of people. I don’t think that people should be alarmed.”
Still, it might be a good idea to reduce your level of diet soda intake. To do that, you need to figure out why you like to drink it in the first place and find something to replace it. Maybe you love the jolt of caffeine? In that case, tea or coffee might be a better choice. Best would, of course, be unsweetened versions. And remember: milk can add a little sweetness with no need for sugar.
Or maybe you just like the fizz of a carbonated beverage? Well, that’s available in seltzer water, or plain carbonated water, which offer the fizzy sensation with no danger to your health. Seltzer waters that do not have flavoring or sweetening usually have no calories and don’t have any artificial sweeteners. Watch out for ones that do, though.
It may be that you can’t live without the sweetness that a soda can offer. But you don’t have to drink it! Natural foods can offer sweetness in all sorts of forms. Sweet fruits such as apples, berries, or peaches pack some natural sugar, and they don’t contain the health risks which come from sodas.
In 2019 the medical journal BMJ published a Cochrane-style review of studies. And its article might help answer some of the questions we’ve raised. The review found no difference in weight gain between those adults who used artificial sweeteners, those who had sugar and others who had no sweetener at all. And only one study found any suggestion that consumers could develop diabetes.
In fact, the review simply couldn’t find any difference that was significant between having artificial sweeteners or not. Even the amount of it didn’t seem to matter. On the other hand, there was no sign of any benefit to people’s health. The reviewers only had limited confidence in the results they found, though.
In the end, it seems that a lot more work needs to be done. But given the potentially bad effects – which the science does not exclude and sometimes does point to – other choices might be better. When you need a refreshing drink, perhaps it’s best to pop the kettle on for a cup of tea or even just to pour a glass of water. Or you can even have your beverage fizzy if that’s what you like!