Lots of people drink diet soda instead of regular soda to reduce their intake of calories and carbohydrates. But health experts have debated whether there is a downside in consuming diet soda. Some research has shown a link between diet soda intake and increased risks of heart disease.
A study also suggests that there may be some negative fallout from drinking diet soda unless you’re really careful about your diet. To determine this, researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign took a look at the diets of more than 22,000 American adults. They found that people who drink diet beverages may indulge in foods that add extra sugar, sodium, fat, and cholesterol to their diets to make up for calories they’re saving on drinks.
“It may be that people who consume diet beverages feel justified in eating more, so they reach for a muffin or a bag of chips,” says University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Ruopeng An. “Or perhaps, in order to feel satisfied, they feel compelled to eat more of these high-calorie foods.”
The study explored a number of so-called “discretionary foods,” foods that our bodies don’t really need and don’t appear in any of the major food groups. These selections increase the variety of people’s diets but tend to be high in energy and low in nutrients. Examples include treats like potato chips, desserts, or french fries.
The study showed that almost all participants drank at least one of the following types of beverages each day: coffee (53 percent), sugar-sweetened beverages (43 percent), tea (26 percent), alcohol (22 percent), and diet beverages (21 percent).
Participants who chose alcohol showed the highest increase in daily calories, with an average of 384 calories. Sugar-sweetened drinks came in second place at an average of 226 calories, while coffee was responsible for an average 108 calories daily. Diet drinks at 69 calories a day and tea at 64 calories a day were at the end of the list.
It would seem that choosing diet beverages or coffee is a smart move from these results, but people who chose these options ended up spending more calories on discretionary foods. This correlation indicates a compensation effect, An explained.Whatever the cause, the connection is worth noting.
“It may be one—or a mix of—these mechanisms,” An says. “We don’t know which way the compensation effect goes.”
Making the switch to diet beverages isn’t enough to help people lose or maintain weight. People who choose these drinks should be aware of the calories in the food they eat as well.
“If people simply substitute diet beverages for sugar-sweetened beverages, it may not have the intended effect because they may just eat those calories rather than drink them,” An said. “We’d recommend that people carefully document their caloric intake from both beverages and discretionary foods because both of these add calories—and possibly weight—to the body.”
Alternative low-calorie beverage choices include water, sparkling water, skim milk, and tea or coffee (just go easy on the sweetener and cream).