Ah, the sweet, refreshing effervescence of an ice-cold soda. Many of us enjoy it with meals and snacks. Some of us wake up with it rather than coffee. But recent studies suggest that soda—even the sugar-free version—may have health-hindering effects. UR Medicine dietitian Katie Schneider quenches our thirst for facts.
Health Matters: What’s so bad about drinking soda?
Schneider: Soda is a prime example of what dietitians call empty calories—something that contributes calories with no other nutrients like vitamins, minerals, protein or healthy fats. All of the calories in soda come from sugar, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. One 12-ounce can of regular soda contains about one quarter-cup of sugar, which comes out to about 170 calories per serving. If you drink a can of soda with each meal, you’re adding 510 calories a day just from your beverage choice.
If you can do without soda, then just avoid it all together. But, if you’re among the many that are hooked on soda, try cutting back gradually. Consider reducing your intake to one serving a day and then transition to a few times per week. Or, savor it only on special occasions.
Health Matters: If I am going to have a soda, which should I choose—regular or diet?
Schneider: That’s a controversial question. In general, most foods and beverages are OK in moderation. A soda or two per week won’t have a big impact on your health, whether it’s diet or regular. However, if you’re drinking soda regularly, there are some factors to consider.
Switching from regular soda to diet is recommended for people with diabetes as well as those who are overweight or obese. The simple sugar in regular soda makes it difficult for a diabetic to safely regulate their blood glucose levels because simple sugar is absorbed quickly and can cause dangerous spikes in blood glucose. Long-term elevations in blood glucose levels can lead to more serious complications like heart and kidney disease. Diet soda may be a safer alternative.
The research behind non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) in diet drinks is inconclusive. However, most studies show that, in moderate amounts, they don’t cause obvious harm. While moderate use of NNS may be useful as a dietary aid for someone with diabetes or on a weight-loss regimen, for optimal health only minimal amounts of both sugar and NNS are recommended.
Health Matters: What is behind the notion that diet soda makes you gain weight?
Schneider: There are multiple theories about why diet soda may lead to weight gain, or more difficulty regulating weight. One is that sugar substitutes increase your appetite. However, some experiments found that sweet taste, whether delivered by sugar or artificial sweeteners, enhances a person’s appetite.
Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than regular sugar, sometimes up to 13,000 times sweeter. The extra sweetness in these “sugar-free” foods and beverages can actually encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence because we become accustomed to a sweeter taste. On a related note, artificial sweeteners do not completely activate food reward pathways in the brain like sugar, so may trigger you to eat other calorie-containing foods or beverages in order to satisfy cravings. Many people who drink diet soda may be more inclined to add sugary and high caloric snacks to their diet. If you’re drinking diet soda to help lose or maintain your weight, you should be extra cautious with the amount and types of meals and snacks you choose.
In addition, recent research has found that sugar substitutes may affect gut microbiota causing changes in the way glucose is tolerated. Although the FDA and most published (especially industry-funded) studies endorse the safety of these additives (artificial sweeteners), there is a lack of conclusive evidence-based research to discourage or to encourage their use.
Katie Schneider, MA, RD, is a registered dietitian on the Food and Nutrition team at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital.