diet soda

Do diet sodas make you fat? Or worse?

Diet sodas are extremely popular, with one-fifth of Americans drinking them on any given day. The producers of these drinks would like you to believe they’re consistent with a fit, healthy lifestyle. Even the cans are getting skinnier! And Taylor Swift drinks it – right?

But do artificial sweeteners actually help keep off the extra pounds? And do they have other health effects you should be worried about? Don’t pop another can until you’ve read our complete guide.

Calories: a zero sum game

One thing is certain: diet soda has fewer calories than regular soda. In fact, it typically has no calories at all, since the sugar has been replaced with zero-calorie sweeteners. The most popular sweeteners include aspartame, Sucralose, and Stevia. All are synthesized in laboratories, with the exception of Stevia, which is derived from a plant.

So if your entire nutritional intake consisted of regular soda, and you then switched to diet soda, your caloric intake would drop to zero, resulting in massive weight loss (and then death, of course).

Alas, there is compelling evidence that diet soda drinkers actually consume more total calories than regular soda drinkers. The most likely explanation is that they believe diet soda gives them a pass to eat more food, but they wind up overeating.

Another explanation is that sweetness is highly addictive, perhaps even more than cocaine. As a result, the flavor of both regular and diet soda send your brain in search of other sweet, high-calorie foods. Unlike regular soda, however, diet soda doesn’t contain any calories to help your body put the brakes on its hunger.

Not good for the waistline – and maybe not the rest of the body either

So even if sweeteners don’t help with weight loss, are they actually dangerous to consume?

Well – maybe.

Diet soda consumption has been linked to type 2 diabetes, depression, dementia, and stroke – in some cases, even when regular soda was not.

Although these studies are concerning, an important caveat is that none of them can control for the possibility that people who drink diet soda also have other behaviors that increase their risk. In other words, it’s possible that diet soda is not to blame, but that it’s associated with some other factor that is.

So what’s the bottom line?

If you simply like the taste of soda, it’s probably fine to drink diet soda once or twice a week. As much as possible, however, you should stick with water, coffee, and tea (even if you add one packet of actual sugar).

If you frequently drink regular soda and would like to lose weight, switching to diet soda can be a helpful first step but won’t be enough. You also must keep track of your food intake and adhere to calorie goals as often as possible.

Finally, regardless of your political affiliation, it might be helpful to remember this observation:

Christopher Kelly, M.D., M.S.

Christopher Rehbeck Kelly, M.D., M.S., is a cardiology fellow at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital / Columbia University Medical Center.

Marc Eisenberg, M.D., F.A.C.C.

Marc Sabin Eisenberg, M.D., F.A.C.C., is an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and an attending cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.