Zero Calories, Zero Risk? Comparing Health Effects of Diet and Regular Soda


Approaching the selection of fountain drinks lined up at Rastall, there are many thoughts that may run through a CC student’s mind. What am I in the mood for? Am I tired? Do I want something caffeinated? Something fruity? Which option would be the healthiest? The last of these questions may be the hardest to answer, specifically when asking yourself whether drinks with artificial sweetener are really that much healthier than their original sugary counterparts. We set our own standards for healthiness, and modern science is still struggling to find us a definitive answer, so the choice is not always straightforward. 

Photo by Daniel Sarché

At first, the answer may seem obvious: of course regular Coca Cola, with its calories—or any regular soda, for that matter—would be less healthy than diet Coca-Cola. These calories are entirely derived from sugar and offer no micronutrients, often called “empty calories.”

Diet Coke has close to no calories. So, what negative effects could it have on our bodies that would make this debate worth having? According to a study done by Yanina Pepino, a biopsychologist at Washington University’s School of Medicine in St. Louis, obese participants who consumed sucralose (an artificial sweetener), and then glucose, showed a 20 percent increase in production of insulin when compared to subjects who drank water, and then consumed glucose. These findings indicate that artificial sweeteners may have a strong effect on metabolism. Some scientists think that artificial sweeteners fool our taste buds into thinking that we are eating sugar, so over time, they change the way our bodies respond to sweetness, and, as a result, they do not process sugar properly.

The long-term effects of this change in metabolism have also been documented. Susan Swithers, a scientist at Purdue University, published a piece in the journal, “Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism,” examining over 16 studies discussing the effect of artificial sweeteners on health. She concluded that people who are “frequent users” of artificially-sweetened drinks may increase their risk of a host of health issues such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome. Once again, researchers have not yet found a definitive reason as to why this is, but some scientists think it may be partly psychological. In other words, it may not be the ingredients of diet soda that affect people’s bodies, but the idea of them. When people consume diet drinks they may think that they are choosing the healthier option. This illusion makes them feel justified to consume other caloric and unhealthy foods that negatively impact their bodies.

These studies suggest that when choosing between regular or diet soda on the basis of health, rather than taste, you might think twice about diet soda.

Most foods and drinks are fine in moderation; what’s important is being conscious of the choices that you make and for what reasons.

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