Do Diet Sodas Increase Weight Gain?

We hear so many things about soda. It can be hard to separate truth from fiction. One thing we can say for sure without hesitation or thought, knowing is absolutely true: the best option for hydration is always water. While other drinks may offer some health perks, when you are looking for something to sip all day, you should reach for good ol’ water. But, the question of just how detrimental soda is gets murkier.

You may have heard that diet soda can make you gain weight but poo-pooed it as just a myth. After all, it’s calorie-free. But, research has found that diet soda can stimulate appetite and the brain’s reward center and cause cravings in women and obese people. After drinking beverages with sucralose, they had lower amounts of the appetite inhibiting hormone and ate more food than when they drank sugar-sweetened drinks. Men and people with lower weight had no increase in appetite or brain reward activity.

The study, from Cleveland Clinic, used MRIs and blood tests to see brain activity and hormone levels, and there was a buffet table for people in the study to pick meals from. As men and people who aren’t looking to lose weight reach for diet soda less often than women and people who might be dieting this is a problem. Folks who reach for diet soda hoping to make a healthier choice can be harming their future actions with the best intentions.

Older studies showed that long-term diet soda consumption was connected to gaining weight. But researchers weren’t sure why. One theory was that the sweet taste of diet soda primes your brain and body for sugar. This is called “insulin confusion.” So much of your body’s physical responses start with your mind. When it encounters a sweet flavor but there’s no sugar, it primes itself for next time. When a diet soda drinker does have sugar later, the body goes into overdrive. Blood sugar spikes higher than it would if the person were not a diet soda drinker.

When you get the sweet taste without the sugar, that changes how you respond to sugar the next time, because you don’t know whether it’s coming or not,” said Prof. Susan Swithers, a behavioral scientist at Purdue Univ. “So what you’re doing is you are kind of pushing the system harder.”

This new study suggests that the best path forward might be to give up diet soda for a while. Cut it out completely. If you are a habitual diet soda drinker and a woman or struggle with your weight, see if giving up diet soda makes your desire for other sweets lessen.

It’s important to note that none of this means that ordinary soda is better for you than diet alternatives. The negative health impacts of soda are well documented. If you crave caffeine while kicking a diet soda habit, your best choices are tea or coffee, don’t turn to regular versions of soda.

Banner image: Faris Mohammed via Unsplash
October 13, 2021
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