Let’s be real: Most of us who choose diet over regular soda probably know, deep down, that its lures are too good to be true. An effervescent elixir of our youth, caffeine-charged, and magically made without sugar and calories — how can that not be too good to be true? Well, like with most things in life, our instincts were right.
One study released this year, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, showed that after a decade of daily soda consumption, those guzzlers were 30% more likely to develop depression than those who didn’t drink soda. The study also noted that the risk appeared greater for those who opted for diet, over its full-calorie counterpart.
Another study, published in the journal Diabetes Care, associated wider waistlines with daily diet soda consumption and showed a 36% greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome and a 67% increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, when compared with those who abstained from diet sodas.
Then there’s the crackhead factor: Excessive soda consumption can cause similar mouth damage and tooth enamel erosion as when one abuses meth or crack cocaine, according to a case study published in General Dentistry. To be fair, the subject drank about two liters of diet soda a day — which is more than most can handle. But, while lesser soda drinkers may not end up with a full-on meth-mouth, acid erosion can still occur.
One of the biggest indicators of diet soda’s detriment was found in a University of Miami and Columbia University joint study released last year, which surveyed 2,500 New Yorkers over a ten-year span. It found that people who drank diet soda daily were more likely to have had a stroke or heart attack, or to have died from vascular disease. This backs up a previous Harvard University study that associated greater risk of stroke with greater low-cal soda consumption.
Of course, all the studies in the world aren’t enough for most Americans to change their drinking patterns. Plus, the research can’t show why these links between drinking diet soda and stroke, heart attack and vascular disease, depression, or expanding waistlines exist. So far, the theories run in line with the “chicken or the egg” quandary.
“We know the tagline: ‘Diet Soda Leads to Diabetes.’ But, when you actually look at the nuances behind it, why is that? Is it the chemical itself? "We’re not exactly sure,” says cardiologist Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Women and Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital and author of Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum's Heart Book: Every Woman's Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life. She continues, “Is this actually from the artificial sweeteners [found in diet sodas] or is this that the people that drink diet soda are trying to not have too much sugar, because they’re already prone to diabetes? Or, they’re already overweight and they end up being diabetic?”
Even if we don’t know the exact cause of the correlations between diet soda and poor mental and physical health effects, that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the research. Steinbaum points to a rock-solid reason to put down the can: Consuming artificial sweeteners will likely lead to poorer eating choices and poorer overall health.
“Women who drink more artificially sweetened drinks tend to crave more sugar. So, what does that do to your system? It makes you want less of the more healthy things,” she says.
“Part of what our food industry has done is produce enough ingredients in foods that actually make you crave more. And, what these artificially-sweetened beverages do [is they] can make you crave sugar.”
Steinbaum notes that people who typically drink diet sodas think they're cutting back on caloric and sugar intake. However, this idea of “savings” accrued by drinking diet soda becomes a bit of a head trip, one that bloats our waistlines in the end. “It’s this theory that, ‘I can save calories and sugar if I have a diet soda, and then cash in on those savings by eating what I want,’” she says. “I see people who drink diet soda to rationalize eating a cheeseburger and fries.”
So, if diet sodas can make us crave other sugary foods, and, at the same time, allow us to make even poorer food choices, when is it okay to succumb to the syrupy goodness?
Steinbaum suggests recalibrating your tastes by weaning yourself off the stuff first. “If you resolve ‘I’m going to stop diet drinks,’ and all of a sudden you don’t get a surge of craving sugar at 3 p.m., that changes everything. Take this one habit out and see what happens to the rest of your bad habits.”
Like with many things in life, you’ll know you've entered into a (more) healthy relationship with diet soda when you don’t crave it anymore.
“Every so often, like if you’re at a birthday party and you really want one, have one,” she says. Of course, by that time, Steinbaum notes “you won’t want it anyway because you lose a taste for it after awhile.”