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Jul. 29, 2011

The Biggest Loser...Diet Soda?

by Ally Ruchman

Click to enlarge images

By Ally Ruchman, Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School

Diet soda seems like the perfect marriage of delicious soda and no-calorie guilt. Yet new studies have emerged that point to diet soda, and other diet drinks, as the culprit behind weight gain. How can this be if there are no calories? And what are we going to do about the new findings?

Epidemiologists in San Antonio researched the effects of drinking diet soda on the body by using a test group of over 400 SALSA, or San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging participants. They found that over the 9.5 years of the study, the waistlines of diet soda drinkers increased 70% more than the waistlines of the non-diet soda drinkers. The drinkers who consumed two or more diet drinks a day had waistline increases 500% greater than the non-drinkers.

So what was the reason for the weight gain? Part of the answer is psychological. When people drink products like Coke Zero and Diet Pepsi, they tend to eat more since they feel entitle to extra calories they are not consuming in their sodas. This phenomenon is called a health halo. It has been demonstrated at fast food restaurants as well. Patrons who eat at "healthy" places will generally consume more calories than someone eating at a burger joint. The answer is not just psychological though. Scientists have found that in rodents, the artificial sweeteners "unbundle the sweetness" from the calories. What this means is that the brain knows calories are coming in, but the body doesn't receive the energy. This can lead to weight gain as the body isn't receiving the energy it needs and to compensate, craves more food.

Another effect of diet drinks was studied on mice. Mice were given meals that had either added corn oil and aspartame, or just corn oil. The mice that received aspartame, which is the no-calorie sweetener used in most diet products, not just diet soda, showed higher fasting glucose levels, but the same or lower insulin levels. Doctors say this imbalance is what may lead to diabetes. There are also numerous other side effects associated with aspartame, including headaches, nausea, and depression.

So what does this mean for a nation hooked on aspartame and other artificial sweeteners? It means that we should reduce the number of diet sodas we drink, but there is no need to cut them out completely. Doctors say that diet drinks are a great bridge between transitioning off regular sodas and sweets. It's fine to reach for a diet soda once in a while, but don't incorporate it into your everyday diet.

_______________________
Ally Ruchman is a junior at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School in Rumson, NJ. She loves animals, reading, science, and traveling.

About Ally Ruchman

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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