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Sad but True: Diet Sodas Are Bad for Your Health

Diet sodas are associated with weight gain, and may even cause insulin confusion

2 glasses of diet sodas with ice

Maybe you finally kicked your regular soda habit. (If you did, congratulations!)


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Maybe you’re a child of the 1990s, and diet sodas have been the only game in town all your life.

Either way, if you find yourself reaching for diet soft drinks on a regular basis, you’ve probably wondered what exactly you’re putting in your body, and how it compares to the sugary stuff.

“Switching from regular to diet soda may offer a short-term cut in calories, but your body won’t be fooled for long,” says registered dietitian Susan Campbell, RD, LD. “Research suggests that your body reacts to certain nonnutritive foods, including the artificial sweeteners in diet soda, in ways that may actually harm your health.”

Here are three reasons why Campbell says it’s important to ditch the diet drink altogether.

Diet soda is associated with weight gain

Some research suggests that your brain reacts to artificial sweeteners much like it does to sugary sweets. Ingesting them frequently may increase your desire for high-calorie foods, putting you at a greater risk of weight gain.

Another study found that people with overweight or obesity who switched to diet soda were likely to consume more calories in food than people with overweight or obesity who drank regular soda. In fact, those who drank diet soda had a higher BMI than their counterparts.

Diet soda may cause insulin confusion

Your brain normally associates “sweet” with calories. In the realm of human physiology, that’s a good thing. It drives your body to release insulin as sugar’s chaperone to the cells to create fuel. In the past, people assumed this process couldn’t occur when we consumed artificial sweeteners because calories don’t follow the sweet flavor.


But one study found the process could very well happen anyway. In the study, individuals who consumed a specific artificial sweetener (sucralose) had increases in both insulin and blood glucose levels. Frequent rises in insulin have been linked to insulin resistance and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes.

Diet soda may change your brain’s reaction to sweetness

Some research also suggests that those who drink diet soda have higher activity in the area of the brain associated with the desire to consume foods high in fat and sugar. Drinking diet soda seems to alter your brain’s sweet-sensing reward center. This means diet soda could potentially change how your brain reacts to cravings for highcalorie foods.

Sugary soda is bad, too

With all the health concerns around diet soda, is it better to just drink the regular, sugary kind?

Not so fast. There’s tons of data out there telling us that added sugar (even when it’s “real”) is bad for our health. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some bubbly goodness on special occasions, but you know what it does mean?

If your goal is better health, it’s time to kick your soda habit altogether.

And that’s no small thing. Not only are many of these drinks caffeinated, but they also alter the sweet-sensing reward center of your brain. The stuff is addictive, just like sugar.

How to stop drinking diet sodas

If you’re ready to leave diet soda in your rearview mirror, here are a few things you can do to ease the transition:

Try alternatives to diet sodas

Flavor, caffeine, carbonation: Diet sodas bring a lot to the table. The good news is you can find all of those things in healthier beverages, too!

  • Get your caffeine somewhere else. If you crave caffeine (in moderation), you’re likely better off with plain coffee or tea. Just don’t load them up with cream and sugar!
  • Add natural flavor to your drinks. If flavor is what made diet soda your drink of choice, try freezing raspberries, cucumber, mint, lemon or lime in ice cubes to add a hint of sweetness.
  • Carbonation is key. Many diet soda drinkers relish the carbonation of soda even more than the sweetness. If that’s you, try putting fruit in seltzer or sparkling water to recreate soda’s bubbly appeal. There are also many flavored seltzers and sparkling waters on the market that work well as a diet soda alternative.
  • Try new things. There are a lot of alternative beverages out there. Have you tried kombucha? Coconut water? You can even get carbonated apple cider vinegar drinks these days! Just make sure you review the ingredients before you raise a toast to your new, soda-free life.

Lifestyle changes can help

  • Avoid getting too hungry. Are you the type to skip breakfast? Do you stick to three square meals a day? That’s not setting you up for success because it makes you more likely to crave something sweet during the day.
  • Distract yourself. If you’re suddenly struck with the urge to grab a soda, respond by doing something that isn’t drinking soda. Drink a glass of water: It’s possible you’re just thirsty. Take a 10-minute walk. Call that friend you keep meaning to catch up with. Chances are, that craving’s going to drift to the back of your mind, and eventually disappear.
  • Plan accordingly. Make sure you bring a soda alternative with you to the neighborhood barbecue. Have cold water or iced tea waiting for you in the fridge, so it’s easier to make a healthy choice at the end of a busy day. Anticipating cravings and planning ahead can make confronting them less taxing.


The bottom line

Soft drink companies have long pitched diet sodas as a healthy alternative to their full-sugar drinks, but that’s not medically accurate. Diet sodas are just as bad — but they’re just as bad in a slightly different way. They’re associated with weight gain, insulin confusion and may even change the way your brain responds to sweets in general.

Quitting a habit is never easy, and soda of all types can be addictive. But experts say that kicking soda all the way out of your diet can have profound effects on both your weight and your health.


Learn more about our editorial process.

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