If you’ve switched to drinking diet cola rather than regular cola to maintain or lose weight, you may want to rethink this option. True, diet cola has fewer calories and less sugar, which should theoretically help you lose weight, but the ingredients in diet cola may have the opposite effect. Sucralose and aspartame, the artificial sweeteners found in some diet colas, play tricks on your body and brain, causing you to overeat and choose less healthy foods. The sweeteners coupled with carbonation may also cause gas and bloating. It won't be easy to kick the habit, but consider replacing diet cola with unsweetened beverages, such as tea and water, to protect your health and your waistline.
Diet Cola and Weight Gain
Your food reward system has a sensory and post-ingestion phase. Your taste buds taste the food on your tongue, and that information travels to your brain, where you get a feeling of satisfaction after eating foods you enjoy. The artificial sweeteners used in diet cola only turn on the sensory part of this food reward system. When you get the sweet taste without the calories, your appetite increases, causing you to overeat because you don’t feel satisfied. That's the conclusion of a review article published in 2010 in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. Over time, diet cola also stops you from connecting sweetness with calories, causing you to crave more sweets. If you continually opt for sugary foods over healthy foods, you’ll start to pack on the pounds. A 2008 study published in Obesity concluded that people who drank 21 diet drinks every week doubled their risk of becoming overweight or obese.
Diet Cola's Relation to Unhealthy Eating
Diet cola plays tricks on your brain and physiological system, and this can steer you toward unhealthy eating. The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association cautiously recommend the use of artificial sweeteners to combat the obesity epidemic and its related health problems. These two organizations also warn that you may seek out additional calories to replace the ones lost through drinking diet soda. When sipping on a diet cola, be wary of the portion size of the foods you're eating. Don’t overeat or reward yourself with a slice of cake or cookies because you’re having a calorie-free drink.
The artificial sweeteners in diet soda also alter how you taste foods. Sweeteners have a stronger taste than table sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, according to Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity and weight-loss specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, on the Harvard Health Publications website. Over time, constant activation of your sugar receptors makes you become less tolerant to more complex tastes, causing you to turn away from low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits and vegetables.
Carbonation and Bloating
You get gas when you have excess air in your digestive tract -- caused by swallowing too much air or the digestion of some foods in your large intestine -- and excess air can cause bloating, or a feeling of fullness in your belly. You almost always swallow air when you eat or drink, but carbonated beverages, such as diet cola, cause you to swallow more air and thus have more gas, reports the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The caffeine in diet cola may also cause bloating if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, so consider caffeine-free diet cola if you have this condition.
Sweeteners and Bloating
Sucralose is a sweetener used in some diet colas. It’s labeled as calorie-free because your body passes it through undigested. Columbia University states that sucralose and other artificial sweeteners can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. Sucralose may also reduce the amount of healthy bacteria in your gut, creating lots of gas as you digest your food. A study published in 2008 in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health showed that rats fed regular amounts of sucralose had lower levels of healthy microbes in their gut and greater amounts of bacteria in their stool. Changes in intestinal bacteria may raise blood glucose levels and increase how much fat you store. These changes put you at risk for type-2 diabetes and weight gain, but more research is needed on human subjects.
Healthy Alternatives to Diet Cola
If you turn to diet cola for a caffeine fix, opt for tea or coffee instead. Both will give you a pick-me-up without any calories, as long as you serve them plain. They are also filled with polyphenols, a type of antioxidant, that fight cell-damaging free radicals in your body. Tea may reduce your risk of heart disease, certain cancers and high blood pressure. Coffee may lower your risk for heart disease and stroke, type-2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease while also preventing gallstones. Avoid adding milk to your tea because it decreases the amount of antioxidants you’re getting. Steer clear of adding cream, sugar, whipped cream and flavored syrups to your coffee. They only give you a lot of fat and calories with little nutritional benefit.
If you crave carbonation, opt for seltzer water instead of diet cola. You can find flavored seltzer water at the grocery store, but check the label to make sure it doesn’t contain artificial sweeteners. You can also flavor your own seltzer water by adding slices of lime, lemon or orange, or a splash of 100-percent juice. For a stronger taste, add fresh mint or basil.
Other options to consider include 100-percent fruit juice, vegetable juice and skim milk. These beverages provide nutrients but also contain calories. Harvard School of Public Health recommends limiting your juice intake to one serving, or 4 ounces, a day and milk to one to two glasses a day. Whenever possible, opt for water. It quenches your thirst and rehydrates you without any calories.
- Harvard Health Publications: Artificial Sweeteners: Sugar-Free, but at What Cost?
- Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine: Gain Weight by Going Diet? Artificial Sweeteners and the Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings
- Obesity: Fueling the Obesity Epidemic? Artificially Sweetened Beverage Use and Long-Term Weight Gain
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: What I Need to Know About Gas
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Eating, Diet and Nutrition for Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Columbia University Go Ask Alice: Sucralose (Splenda)
- Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health: Splenda Alters Gut Microflora and Increases Intestinal P-Glycoprotein and Cytochrome p-450 in Male Rats
- Science News: The Sour Side of Artificial Sweeteners
- Harvard School of Public Health: Other Healthy Beverage Options
- Harvard School of Public Health: Healthy Beverage Guidelines