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Diet Sodas and Weight Gain

This the fourth question that I am addressing in a series about "5 key questions about weight loss," which was a Time article that ran in March. As I've said before, I agree with much of the answer that Time provided to the questions, but I think that they were fairly brief, so I am going into a little more depth with the answers that I provide.
You can find the answers to the previous questions at Why does it get harder to lose weight as I get older, Which kind of exercise is best for me, and Why doesn't exercise help you lose weight?

The fourth question in the time series is "Can Diet Sodas actually make you gain weight?"

Ah, the age old (or at least as long as aspartame has been around) question. I'm going to temporarily ignore the fact that Diet Soda is up there as one of the last "real foods" that you can eat. We all know that Diet Soda is not good for you, so instead I am going to focus merely on the weight loss aspect of this, since that is the theme of the key questions. You can read more about my feelings on artificial sweeteners at Work On It Wednesday - Artificial Sweeteners.

Time's answer to this question is pretty good. Basically the gist of it is that artificial sweeteners do two things - 1) make you desensitized to sweetness, since the artificial sweeteners is about 100 times sweeter than natural sweeteners, and 2) make you crave more sweet foods, since you are not getting the calories that your body expects from the artificial sweeteners.

In 2005 the University of Texas at San Antonio conducted a study that suggested that there is a 41% increase in the risk of being overweight for each can or bottle of diet soft drinks that  a person consumes each day. That is crazy! That means for someone that drinks one can a day of Diet Coke (which is a fairly low amount in the world of Diet Coke drinkers), your risk increases by 41%, but for a person that drinks two Diet Cokes a day, the risk goes up by 82%! On the other hand, regular soft drinkers' risk for obesity was hovering around 30% per can they drink per day.

According to Dr. Katz of the Oprah show, animal research that has been done on artificial sweeteners suggest that eating sweet foods causes your body to expect a rush in calories (energy). Since artificial sweeteners do not contain those calories, the brain begins to lose the ability to judge how much you have eaten overall, and thus you begin to overeat and gain weight (this study was done on rats).

Another aspect of the whole debate is that often times people who are drinking Diet Cokes are also eating other unhealthy foods - like diet cookies, low fat, processed, junk. All of these foods contain similar artificial and "replacement" ingredients, so your body is not getting the satisfaction of the calories and nutrients it needs. Like we talked about in "Why I am reducing my grain consumption..." eating these processed (often times very high in carbohydrate) foods can leave you with cyclical cravings which make you always want more. Pair that with the fact that often times processed sweets are much sweeter than the sweet foods found in nature (compare a twinkie to an apple), and you can see how all of the processed foods, including but not limited to diet sodas, can cause your body to be desensitized to the sweetness and begin to expect more. This, going hand in hand with the other information, can definitely cause overeating in a desire to satiate those sweet cravings.

I personally have found all of these things to be true. When I drink more diet soda, I have worse sugar cravings. I also have worse cravings for diet sodas during times that I crave more unhealthy foods, so it does become a cycle. I truly believe in the addictive power of diet sodas. Not only do I love the caffeine (which you can still get from healthier choices, like organic coffee), but something about the sweetness is very hard for me to turn down. The biggest factors that I think of when I am trying to resist the urge of a Diet Coke is that I drink less water when we have Cokes in the house, since I am replacing my water sipping with Coke sipping, and also that I do have terribly, unbelievably strong sweet cravings when I drink it. Overall, I don't have a huge sweet tooth, but when I eat artificial sweeteners, it ignites in me a sweet tooth that is powerfully strong. This begins a cycle of carb cravings, which leave me feeling awful.  So as I've heard many trainers and dietitians say, when you are thinking of indulging in something (a brownie sundae, skipping a work out, a diet coke, or whatever), think of the long term effect. For me, the long term effect is feeling sluggish, lethargic, and constantly dealing with cravings for at least a day, sometimes two, so the Diet Coke is not usually worth it.


  1. I was a little surprised to hear about the connection between appetite and diet sodas.

  2. Yeah, I find it to be pretty interesting too, but I think it makes sense when you really give it some thought. Your body is made to release certain hormones when you take in food, but artificial sweeteners are kind of a "pretend" food, so your body gets confused. I didn't think too much about it until I realize that I really was having that same experience with my body and cravings, so for different people it may be different. Thanks for reading!