The debate about which foods belong in a “healthy diet” (and which don’t) is ongoing – especially when it comes to diabetes. Are carbs the enemy? Should you cut out gluten? Should you sign up for that 21-day detox? And, one of the most controversial questions: Should you drink diet soda?
While many organizations, such as the American Diabetes Association and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics take a fairly neutral stance on artificial sweeteners found in diet sodas, stating that there is room for nutritive sweeteners (non-caloric, alternative sweeteners) in an otherwise healthy diet, I personally take a more conservative approach with my clients. Nutritional science is still a relatively new scientific field, relative to other bodies of scientific research, leaving a lot to still be discovered about long-term effects of many processed foods that have not even been around for a century.
In general, I am an advocate for whole foods—foods that are as minimally processed as possible and provide an abundance of nutritive value to those that consume them. Within this logic, since diet sodas fall short of providing any nutritional value, they should be treated more as a novelty than a dietary staple.
If you are still on the fence about consuming diet sodas regularly, here are some things to consider before picking up that sugar-free cola:
Even “natural” sugar alternatives are processed
Some sodas get their sweetness from more natural sources than others – but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you. Stevia, for instance, is a sugar substitute derived from the stevia plant, which has been used for over a thousand years by native tribes in South America to sweeten foods and teas. Unfortunately, the stevia that is found in your local grocery store is a cousin far removed from the traditional stevia leaf versions used by our ancestors, which still makes it a processed foods by most dietitian’s definition.
Other sweeteners, such as xylitol or monk fruit extract, have been given a lot of attention for being more “natural” versions of sugar substitutes. Some products even claim that these sugar-alternatives contain great health benefits. However, while most non-nutritive sweeteners may have once been a part of a whole food, the end-product is oftentimes manipulated and derived in a laboratory. What’s more, many of these sweeteners, when eaten or drunk regularly, can result in gastrointestinal distress, sometimes causing flatulence and a laxative effect.
Drinking diet soda will perpetuate your cravings for sweet foods
If you’re trying to lower your desire for sweet foods, then drinking diet sodas won’t be doing you any favors. Even though diet sodas won’t contribute any glucose into your bloodstream, the human brain cannot differentiate the difference between real sugar and fake sugar, making it even more difficult to kick a sweet tooth. This can make it even harder to stay away from foods that do raise your blood sugars. Rather than swapping regular soda for diet soda in the same amount, your best bet is to reduce your intake of all sweetened beverages, allowing your body to lower its tolerance to sweet foods, thereby minimizing sugar cravings and making sweets a real “treat.”
Diet sodas can interfere with hydration
Dehydration is a big risk for those living with diabetes because urine output is often increased when blood glucose levels are elevated. This is also why chronic thirst is one of the first indicators of having developed diabetes.
Many of my clients who drink soda do so with at least one meal per day. What many of them don’t realize is that sodas, specifically those that contain caffeine, act as a diuretic, making them more vulnerable to dehydration.
When possible, pair your meals with water, which will promote optimal hydration levels. If you do choose to have a soda—diet or not—make sure to compensate for its diuretic effect by drinking plenty of water afterwards and throughout the day.
Diet sodas may be toying with your gut health
Many doctors and dietitians will tell you that good health stems from having a healthy gut, which basically means an abundance of healthy bacteria in your stomach. This bacteria not only helps aid in digestion, but also has been shown to help ward off disease and promote overall health outside of the digestive tract. This is particularly big news for those living with diabetes or anyone at risk for developing diabetes or metabolic syndrome.
But if you’re drinking diet soda regularly, you could be working against this helpful bacteria. Recent studies have shown that the consumption of artificial sweeteners—like those found in the majority of diet sodas—have been linked to poor gut health and glucose intolerance.
While there is still a lot more research to confirm the long-term effects of diet soda on gut bacteria, the odds are not in diet soda’s favor, making it risky to consume diet sodas on the regular.
Is the diet soda worth it?
With so much research out there questioning diet soda’s impact on our health, and considering that it does not provide any nutritional benefits at all, it hardly seems worth it to drink diet soda regularly.
As the saying goes, “everything in moderation” (well, almost everything). If diet soda is your occasional go-to luxury, then it is okay to savor and enjoy it as such – again, occasionally. But you’re treating diet soda like another food group in your daily routine, then it may be time to rethink your drink.