Diet Soft Drink: Is it healthy?

Leading dietitian and nutritionist Susie Burrell reveals that diet soda might not be the healthier alternative we wish it was.

Diet soft drinks have been around for almost 40 years, yet the question remains of whether they are actually a better choice nutritionally than regular high sugar soft drinks. Diet soft drinks are, put most simply, a mix of colours, sweeteners (both artificial and natural) and additives combined with water that creates unique flavour profiles entire generations have been programmed to like and actively seek out as a sweet energy hit minus the 9 plus teaspoons of sugar found in regular soft drink.

There have been concerns raised about the ‘safety’ of diet soft drinks, especially those sweetened artificially, for many years, although the majority of hypotheses in this space are yet to be proven. There is though, a relatively strong and growing research base to suggest that diet soft drinks are closely associated with a number of long term health issues and even a shorter lifespan. So what is it about diet soft drinks that could explain these research findings and suggest that they are no better than regular, sugary drinks?

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1. What we eat when we drink them

If you take a little time to consider the way in which diet soft drinks are typically consumed, you will notice it is not often with a salad, or bowl of fruit. Rather, both diet and regular soft drinks are typically consumed with other high calorie, high fat foods. This includes times that we are out and about picking up food, socialising in bars, nights out with alcohol or as an energy pick me up at times when a nutritious meal and some water for hydration are more likely what is really required.

Potentially it is the mix of processed foods, high amounts of fat and sugars along with the chemicals in diet soft drinks that interact to impact inflammatory pathways in the body over time. This means that while you are unlikely to see any immediate side effects of drinking diet soft drink, over time it appears they do have some influence over the health of the cells and risk of developing a number of diseases including neurological disorders and some types of cancer.

2. The programming effect

Human beings are programmed to seek out sweet foods. Breast milk, for example, is sweet, as are many carbohydrate based foods that are digested to give glucose (the primary fuel for both the brain and the muscles). One of the standout features of diet soft drink, is that artificially sweetened varieties in particular are up to 200x sweeter than sugar.

Over time this intense sweetness has been shown to have a programming effect, in which the body seeks out more and more sweet food to get the stimulation it is used to receiving. This may also partially explain why you can tolerate more and more diet soft drink over time, and why it takes time to wean off it when you are used to drinking a lot. Most importantly, for health and weight control in general, controlling the intake of sweet food is important, and may be made much more difficult if your body is used to getting a sweet hit from diet soft drink on a regular basis.

3. They offer no nutrients

With increasingly inactive lifestyles, eating fewer calories but optimising nutrient intake has never been so important. Diet soft drink offers no nutrients – no fibre, no protein, no slowly released energy – just a taunt of something sweet and yummy without any substance to support the body in terms of energy production and regulation.

If you are craving a diet soft drink, chances are your body actually needs fluid, and/or good quality carbs for energy and not giving it this is likely to be starving it of the nutrients it is really asking for.

4. The impact on food intake

One of the most common side effects of opting for diet soft drink in place of something more nutritious is what happens an hour or two later. Here, after a hit of sweetener and sometimes caffeine, blood glucose levels are likely to drop again, triggering sugar cravings and extreme hunger which can in turn drive the consumption of discretionary food.

Or in the case of choosing a diet drink, then allowing yourself to indulge in other sweet, calorie dense options because you have been ‘good’ ad going ‘diet’. Either way, it is not by chance that plenty of people are ordering a fast food meal with a diet soft drink and the harsh reality is that the less of both you consume, the better.

Susie Burrell is a dietitian and nutritionist and holds a Master’s Degree in Coaching Psychology. Susie is the resident dietitian on Channel 7’s Sunrise and has been a dietitian in Sydney for more than 20 years.