Diet soda and artificial sweeteners

Jennifer Geer

Your body gets tricked into thinking it's real sugar. And that's a bad thing.

Sugar-free and with minimal calories, diet soft drinks were meant to be a healthy substitute for the real thing. Introduced in the 1950s, they didn't get popular until Tab debuted in 1963.

I am old enough that I can remember Tabs in our refrigerator when I was little. My mom drank them to stay "healthy," but their taste left something to be desired. There were a few times I had a drink of her Tab if we were out of regular Coke, and there was no mistaking that strange, chemical taste for sugar.

These days, diet drinks have come a long way, and their taste much more closely mimics real sugar. Cyclamate, the chemical originally used to sweeten Tab, was banned in 1969. However, further studies have not shown a link between the sweetener and cancer. Today, most diet drinks use aspartame for sweetening, which also has not shown links to cancer.

It's nice to know they don't cause cancer, but it doesn't mean diet drinks are "good for us." Drinking diet soft drinks has some downsides on your health.

Artificial sweeteners confuse your body

The problem is, even though diet drinks are calorie-free, your body tastes the sweetness and readies itself for an intake of sugar.

When you drink something with artificial sweetener in it, your body thinks you are consuming sugar. When you actually consume sugar, your body signals that you have consumed enough calories and you feel satisfied. But when you drink diet soda, your body never gets satisfied.

Here is what happens instead:

  • Your appetite increases.
  • You have cravings for high-carbohydrate foods.
  • Your body stores more fat.

What happens within one hour of drinking a diet soda?

A pharmacist created an infographic to show us what our bodies did after we drank a Diet Coke. Here is what he found.

In the first 10 minutes

  • The enamel on your teeth begins to be broken down by the high content of phosphoric acid.
  • The artificial sweetener aspartame tricks your body into thinking you are consuming sugar.

After 20 minutes

  • Your body reacts to the sweetener the same as it does when you drink a sugary soft drink. It triggers insulin, and your body gets switched into a fat-storing mode.
  • The sweeteners confuse our digestive systems by interfering with our gut bacteria. (An imbalance of healthy bacteria may cause weight gain.)

After 40 minutes

After 60 minutes

  • Unlike regular soda, your body is not satiated.
  • Your thirst is not quenched, and you want more.

Why does drinking a diet soda leave you wanting more?

Diet soda will never quench your thirst because it dehydrates your body. A regular soda, full of sugar, provides your body with a little bit of satisfaction. But diet soda can leave you craving more sweets, leading you to reach for either another can of soda or an unhealthy snack.

You get zero nourishment from diet soda. And when you drink it instead of water or another healthy drink, you are depriving your body of nutrients and hydration. Dehydration can cause fatigue, irritability, and brain fog, causing you to crave more sweets or drink more diet soda.

What about weight gain?

Artificial sweeteners cause the hormone leptin to drop. Leptin is responsible for regulating your hunger. Your body on diet soda is going to be hungrier and crave more foods, causing weight gain.

Then there is the mental aspect of drinking diet soda. You know your drink has zero calories, so you may feel like it's okay to splurge on that burger or candy bar.

How to stop your diet soda habit

If you're drinking diet sodas regularly, it's probably become a habit that is hard to break. You crave the fizzy sweetness, and you may feel having one helps you through your day. But if you want to stop, you have two choices. You can either cut down the amount you are drinking slowly or quit cold turkey.

Which you choose depends on what works best for you. Some people find it's easier to taper off how much they drink. But others need to stop completely because they find drinking one soda can trigger their cravings and lead them to want more.

If you've been drinking diet soda regularly, and you quit completely, you're probably going to have withdrawals mainly from stopping caffeine.

Your can of diet soda may also have become a ritual or a break in your day. Here are some ideas for healthy replacements.

Coffee or tea

If you drink diet soda for energy, coffee or tea can give you a lift with the caffeine, and it will also help you avoid the side effects of caffeine withdrawal.

Coffee and tea contain healthy antioxidants, although experts agree it's best not to drink more than six cups per day of coffee. And note, those are 8-ounce cups, not six Venti-sized from Starbucks. If you need a sweetener, try a little bit of honey rather than drowning your drink in sugar packets.

Sparkling water

I once had a big Diet Coke addition myself. When I stopped drinking it, what I missed the most was the cold, fizzy drink. I have found that a can of La Croix gives me the same pleasure a can of Diet Coke used to. And La Croix doesn't contain any artificial or natural sweeteners.

I'll admit, it took a little while to get used to the milder flavor of sparkling water, but now I am hooked. There are many brands of sparkling water on the market. Just be careful not to get one flavored with artificial sweeteners, or you'll have the same problems as you do with diet drinks.

Water

Sometimes your craving for diet soda may be simply from feeling thirsty. Be sure you are fully hydrated and drinking plenty of water throughout the day. If you've been experiencing brain fog or fatigue, you may find drinking more water does the trick.

If you think plain water tastes boring, try infusing it. You can add sliced cucumbers, or mint, or lemons to give a little flavor.

It may take a little time to get over your diet drink habit, but your body will thank you for it.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area. New articles published each weekday.

Chicago, IL
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