If it says “diet,” doesn’t that mean it’s the healthier option? Though diet soda may sound more appealing than its regular counterpart because it contains zero calories and zero sugar, you’d be surprised to know the real science behind it. In our latest free webinar, Nurse Practitioner Becky Barkey debunks myths about the artificial sweeteners in Diet Coke and other diet soft drinks and explains how they can actually be harmful to your overall health.
Diet Coke: Good, bad or neutral?
Marketing efforts have tried to convince the public that zero sugar-added foods and beverages are the healthier option — but it’s not that simple. Artificial sweeteners may sound like a healthier alternative to sugar, but multiple large cohort studies have found positive correlations between artificial sweetener use and negative health issues such as weight gain.
Let’s break down the ingredients: Carbonated water and caramel color
Diet Coke’s main ingredient is carbonated water. Well, it’s water, so that’s a good sign. The carbonation in these drinks is produced by infusing water with carbon dioxide gas under pressure to produce those bubbles many of us enjoy. When consumed by itself, there is no evidence to suggest carbonated water is bad for you. Now, let’s move on to more harmful ingredients, starting with caramel color. This artificial food dye, found in processed foods, is what gives Diet Coke its color, but it can also promote hyperactivity in children and has been known to cause allergic reactions. Though not the top offender, caramel color is still artificial, which means the body can identify it as a toxic substance.
Aspartame and phosphoric acid
The ingredient in Diet Coke you’ve probably heard the most about is the artificial sweetener aspartame. Artificial sweeteners such as NutraSweet® and Equal® have been associated with an increased risk of cancer and weight gain, bad gut and dental health and other health issues. Did you know artificial sweeteners are 200-13,000 times sweeter than sugar? Here’s how they work: Their molecules are similar enough to sugar molecules to fit on the sweetness receptor but are too different from sugar molecules for the body to break them down into calories. They trick the brain, causing you to crave more sugar.
Processed foods also contain preservatives which are traditionally added to minimize the risk of spoilage and bacterial overgrowth. Sounds like a good thing, right? Well, a preservative in Diet Coke, phosphoric acid, may be bad for your bones. A study found that increased phosphorus and caffeine in diet cola can interfere with normal calcium absorption, thereby increasing the risk of osteoporosis and fracture.
Potassium benzoate and natural flavors
Potassium benzoate is a preservative used to protect taste and is only found in diet sodas, not regular sodas. It can cause damage to DNA in the mitochondria and has been linked to hives, asthma and other allergic conditions. If you’re looking to decrease overall inflammation to your body, you’ll want to stay away from Diet Coke as potassium benzoate can cause irritation and inflammation to the skin, eyes and mucous membranes in your gut. To enhance its flavor, Diet Coke uses natural flavors which are extracted from plants and animals. Now, don’t let the word “natural” fool you, the FDA has not officially defined this term, meaning it can be used to describe almost any type of food.
Citric acid, caffeine and phenylalanine
Now to the final three ingredients in Diet Coke: citric acid, caffeine and phenylalanine. Citric acid is typically used in fruit flavored drinks to enhance flavor, whereas phosphoric acid is typically used in cola — Diet Coke uses both. Now, a lot of people drink Diet Coke for the caffeine to stay awake and alert. It’s important to note, caffeine is best consumed in moderation, and vitamin supplements may be a healthier alternative for a natural boost of energy. The final ingredient is phenylalanine which comes with a warning on every Diet Coke product. This is because people who have the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) can have serious health problems if they consume this amino acid.
Diet Coke and Weight Loss: A myth?
Yes, science proves there is no link between drinking Diet Coke and losing weight. Studies show that people who drink diet soda have larger waistlines than nondrinkers do. A study conducted at Yale University using rats found that the rats conditioned with artificial sweeteners gained more weight and increased body fat versus those conditioned with glucose. Even with this information, you still may be thinking, why would you gain weight if Diet Coke has zero calories? The problem with this is that the artificial sweeteners in Diet Coke trick your brain into craving more sweets thus increasing your appetite and likelihood of gaining weight. Artificial sweeteners have been associated with a drop in leptin, a hormone produced by the fat calls in your body that controls appetite by signaling your brain to stop eating. So, the less leptin in your system, the hungrier you’ll be.
The science says it’s hard to lose weight if you continue to drink Diet Coke, but did you know it can also lead to addiction? Like a drug, Diet Coke’s combination of caffeine and aspartame has addictive properties. Even if you’re consuming one to two cans per day, your brain still isn’t receiving enough of a reward from the artificial sweeteners as it would from regular sugar, tricking it into craving more sweets. Those with a high intake of diet soda may even experience withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, irritability and nausea when trying to quit. You’ll be happy to know cutting artificial sweeteners and sugar from your diet can decrease sugar cravings in about one week!
Gut, dental and overall health
Gut health is so important to your overall health. If your gut isn’t happy, nobody’s happy. In studies conducted using mice, artificial sweeteners changed their gut bacteria, making them more susceptible to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance, both which can lead to weight gain. Poor gut health affects the way we absorb nutrients, so no matter how healthy you eat, your body won’t be able to benefit as much from those essential vitamins and minerals if you’re regularly consuming Diet Coke. Increased inflammation in the gut feeds the bad bacteria, causing havoc in your digestion. Gut health is also crucial to your mental health, affecting anxiety, depression, ability to focus, etc.
Consuming just one diet soda per day has been linked to a 67% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes due to its effect on insulin. Other serious health issues associated with Diet Coke consumption include obesity, hypertension, high blood sugar and high triglycerides (all with a 37% increased risk). Diet Coke is even bad for your teeth. With a pH level of 3.2, which falls between the pH of water and battery acid, the phosphoric acid in Diet Coke can dissolve your teeth’s enamel within the first 10 minutes of consumption.
What happens in the next 50 minutes after drinking Diet Coke? Well, 20 minutes in, the aspartame triggers your taste receptors and tricks your body into thinking it has processed sugar. This causes an insulin response, sending your body into fat storage mode. After 40 minutes, the combination of caffeine and aspartame creates a short addictive high. And within one hour, your body is depleted of essential minerals, causing you to crave more food.
What should I drink then? The short answer: water. Plain water is the best alternative to soda and sugary drinks. Though, if you want to emulate the sweetness or fizziness of soda, you can add flavor or carbonation to your water. Kombucha and other probiotic-rich beverages may also be a great alternative. If you’re looking for caffeine, energy vitamins like B vitamins or vitamin drinks that contain caffeine are a healthy substitute — just try not to consume caffeine too close to bedtime!
We just threw a lot of information at you, so to recap, here are a few key facts about Diet Coke you should know before consuming:
- Diet Coke is not linked to weight loss and can actually cause weight gain.
- Artificial sweeteners are significantly sweeter than sugar and trick your brain into craving more food.
- Diet Coke has addictive properties and can affect your gut, dental and overall health.
Though the word “diet” may sound enticing, especially to those trying to lose weight, it’s important to know the science behind these zero calories, zero sugar drinks. Here at BESANA Health & Wellness, we want you to make the best decisions for your overall health and wellbeing! To learn more, watch the full webinar or reach out to our team today at 303.327.7300 or by requesting a consultation online.