Paging Dr. Frischer - Diet Soda

When I first met my wife, she was a slender 18 year-old, drinking diet cola and eating chocolate. My obvious question was "Why the diet drink, if you're eating chocolate?" Her answer: "You have to choose your calories carefully!"Soda manufacturers have spent billions of dollars trying to convince us that diet soda is a healthy, light choice. With so many in our country struggling with weight gain, who can blame us if diet soda seems like a dream come true? Soft drinks are the most heavily consumed beverage in the United States (although they are losing some ground to bottled water, sports drinks, and energy drinks). An average of about two and a half cans of regular or diet soda are consumed every day for each man, woman and child. Even without any in-depth analysis, it's terribly obvious that soda consumption is a significant problem in our country. As we all know, diet sodas have no calories. Many overweight people drink them heavily, believing that they will aid in weight loss. But is that actually true? It will come as no surprise that studies have linked consumption of sugar-laden sodas with multiple risk factors for heart disease. However, it is fascinating that the same link exists for diet sodas! More than one reliable study has now shown that those who drink one or more diet sodas per day have a 50-60% increased risk for developing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors including obesity around the waist, low levels of the good cholesterol HDL, high blood pressure, and elevated sugar levels. Those who have metabolic syndrome markedly increase their risk of having a stroke, heart attack, and diabetes. On average, all soda drinkers, whether diet or regular, tend to have similar eating patterns and consume more calories, more saturated fats and trans fats, eat less fiber, exercise less, and be more sedentary. Even when researchers adjusted for dietary habits, a significant link was still observed between diet soft drink consumption and the risk of metabolic syndrome. A University of Texas study looked at artificial sweeteners and weight. Again, it was no surprise to find a correlation between the daily consumption of large amounts of all soft drinks and obesity. What was surprising was that those who only drank diet sodas had an even higher risk of obesity. Theories abound. The most common is that when the body tastes something sweet, it then craves more sweet-tasting foods. Another theory reminds me of my wife's philosophy from years ago. When we drink diet sodas, we are actually making a deal with ourselves that if we avoid calories in our drink, we allow ourselves the luxury of eating something else. (Thank goodness that every rule has exceptions. My wife still drinks diet coke, still loves chocolate, and is still slender.) Let's not forget that diet soda has a laundry list of suspicious ingredients that likely work against our body's effort to achieve a healthy balance, including caffeine, artificial sweeteners, sodium, and phosphoric acid. This is particularly worrisome when parents allow their overweight children to drink diet sodas instead of a nutritionally rich drink like non-fat milk. • We've discussed caffeine in previous articles. It gives us an often-useful energy "buzz" along with potential addiction, fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, tremors, palpitations, and exaggerated mood and hormonal swings. It is a diuretic, so it can actually work against hydration. • Soda contains sodium, which quenches thirst, but can raise blood pressure and cause water retention. • Studies done on nurses who drank two or more diet sodas per day had a two-fold increase in risk of kidney disease. The reason is likely due to the sodium and artificial sweetener. • Experts aren't certain why drinking soda is linked to osteoporosis and risk of fracture. Perhaps it is simply that the soda is displacing healthier drinks, like milk or fortified orange juice in the diet. However, new research indicates that there may be more to this connection. Researchers at Tufts University, studying several thousand men and women, found that women who regularly drank three or more cola-type sodas per day had almost 4% lower bone mineral density in the hip, even though these women were no different in their calcium and vitamin D intake. However, women who drank non-cola soft drinks, like Sprite or Mountain Dew, didn't show this lower bone density. Phosphoric acid, a major component in most sodas, may be to blame. Phosphorus itself is an important bone mineral, but a disproportionate amount of phosphorus compared to calcium could lead to bone loss. Another possible culprit is caffeine, which experts have long known can interfere with calcium absorption. Both caffeinated and non-caffeinated colas are associated with lower bone density, but the caffeinated drinks appeared to do more damage. Much of this data is preliminary and begs for further study. However, the facts are piling up. Here are some strategies for dealing with soda, whether diet or regular: • Replace some of your soda with water. A general rule of thumb is that we should drink, in ounces, about half of our body weight in pounds. A 140-pound person should have about 70 ounces of water every day. • Take a daily multivitamin if you choose to drink diet sodas. This will help balance some of the missing nutrients inherent in a poorly balanced diet. • Explore why you are drinking diet soda. Is it a stress reaction, a (misguided) weight loss strategy, a habit from boredom, or for social reasons? If you can't answer this, try stopping and observe your reaction. The reasons will become apparent. Let's put more conscious effort into what we put into our bodies. Drink water! Good health to you all.

********** Published: April 23, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 1