For the health-conscious consumer, diet soda seems like a good deal. After all, it’s the sugar in those beverages that causes health problems. So I should be able to drink diet soda and still get my soda fix without the adverse effects, right?
Although a few studies done in animals on the effects of sugar substitutes suggested that they created severe health problems such as cancer, those studies have been largely discredited. More thorough and comprehensive studies found that the main five artificial sweeteners used (acesulfame K, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose) caused almost no health problems beyond stomach discomfort. In fact, eating artificial sweeteners can even help you avoid spikes in blood sugar. So what’s the big deal?
Turns out it’s not that simple. And it may have to do, not with our stomachs, but with our brains.
Several studies have found that because artificial sweeteners light up our tongues but don’t affect our blood and other systems, they leave us less satisfied. This lower level of satisfaction can in turn trigger cravings for sugar and sweet things, ultimately increasing sugar dependence.
It seems that the answer is to actually reduce the amount of sweet food and beverages consumed overall. Studies done on systematically reducing salt or fat (without artificial substitutions) found that people began to crave these ingredients less. A similar approach could work for sugar in the diet as well (although getting people to give up their sugar might be easier said than done).
Either way, the flux of diet sodas and even just drinking soda needs to end. A study published just this year found that people who drank soda seemed to have higher levels of depression, and the risk was even greater for people who drank diet soda (or even diet tea). Drinking diet soda daily has also been linked to higher risk of type 2 diabetes, increased chronic disease, and higher BMIs.
But it’s not just for the sake of your health that you should stop drinking soda. When parents drink soda, their kids are three times as likely to drink soda almost daily!
Some public health advocates like to draw comparisons between Big Soda and Big Tobacco. Just a few decades ago, doctors had a tough time convincing the public to give up smoking. It wasn’t until we started seeing tobacco companies in a negative light that people, especially teenagers, became outraged at being manipulated and lied to.
The same situation is unfolding again with big soda companies, but they’ve learned from Big Tobacco’s mistakes. Most big name snack companies also make a name for themselves through their community projects, many of which involve health and nutrition. By positioning themselves as promoters of healthy lifestyles and brands to be trusted, they’re helping the public forgot the real health impact of drinking soda.
Even the former CEO of Coca-Cola admits that the power soda companies hold is staggering, particularly in light of the current obesity epidemic. The worst practices may be how they market and supply soda to low-income communities and people who are less likely to be aware of the health issues surrounding sugar consumption. They also aggressively target teenagers, who are just learning how to make purchasing and food decisions.
That CEO now spends his energy creating commercials for baby carrots, hoping people will eat them “like junk food.”
If you’re trying to cut soda out of your diet, try replacing it with a healthier alternative, not juice (which can have just as much sugar) but something like unsweetened ice tea. And if you do indulge every now and then, go for the real stuff and just have a little in moderation.