Dissecting the Use of Artificial Sweeteners in Diet Soda

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“Can I order a double cheeseburger, large fries, and a large Diet Coke?” I hear this request at fast food restaurants nearly every time I am in line. The irony of washing down a calorically dense meal with a NutraSweet-flavored bubbly liquid makes me wonder why they do not just order regular soda. While consuming diet soda can reduce a few hundred calories from one’s diet, current research suggests that diet soda does not effectively help individuals cut calories or lose weight as chemical properties in the artificial sweeteners may actually promote weight gain and other health complications.

Mainly, the artificial sweeteners do not serve as truly effective replacements for sugar. The body desires real sugar in form of sucrose or fructose because sugar provides a source of energy to the body. From an evolutionary perspective, it is adaptive and advantageous to like the taste of foods containing sugar as sugar is converted to energy, and energy sustains the organism’s life. This is why, simply stated, people like sweet food. In fact, they love it so much, that the soda industry pours over 35 grams of sugar per can in their soft drinks and can sell over a billion cans a day according to Coca Cola’s own website.

To provide a guilt-free alternative to sugary soft drinks, these companies have used artificial sweeteners as substitutes to the sucrose and high fructose corn syrup traditionally added to sodas. Artificial sweeteners like NutraSweet, Equal, Sweet and Low, and Splenda, are mixtures of chemicals like sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame that taste sweet to the tongue, but are not digested in the body, and therefore do not add any calories. While it sounds like a “sweet” idea and save hundreds of empty calories by opting for diet soda, current research suggests that the simple replacement is not so simple after all. According to Sarah Hill, a study author and psychologist at Texas Christian University who as done extensive research on artificial sweeteners and their effects, artificial sweeteners in diet soda does not, in the long term, help cut calories. She tells Time Magazine the following chain of events regarding the consumption of diet soft drinks:

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On face value you’re getting a nice sweet taste without calories, but my research shows it might lead to cognitive shifts that might promote overconsumption later. When you have that unnatural pairing of sweetness and no energy increase, it leads the body to perceive an energy crisis. It triggers thoughts and behaviors consistent with a scarcity mode. (Hill 1)

The above scenario describes a sort of red herring for the body. The body senses the presence of something beneficial (in the case of a red herring, a detective hound smells the pungent odor of a herring on the trail), becomes excited, and later finds out that there was no source of energy (or clues indicating the presence of a suspect). In response, both the body and the detective hound begin to panic. What Hill means by “scarcity mode” is the body does everything it can to survive. Stress hormones elevate significantly, the digestive system slows down, and the immune system is temporarily suppressed. It is this reason that many individuals have reported hand tremors and irritability after consuming diet soda. As the body tries to keep itself alive, the individual becomes incredibly hungry and tends to consume more than the 200 or so calories he or she tried to avoid earlier. Additionally, since the digestive system was slowed down, the body has difficulties metabolizing all of the potential energy and stores what excess energy in fat cells. As my older cousin said regarding drinking Diet Coke throughout his early adulthood, “And that, my friend, is how I grew this belly in grad school”. While it is easy to cut a few hundred calories by drinking diet soda, the consequences of doing so lead to eventual consumption of those avoided calories and potentially overcompensation, too.

In addition to over consuming the calories one wanted to avoid in the first place, drinking diet sodas have shown to cause problems internally in the human body. As Dr. Oz once humorously said to two obese ladies on his show, “Close your eyes and don’t think about your weight or how beautiful you are on the outside. You need to be beautiful on the inside”. Calorie consumption and weight gain are not the only problems at hand with drinking diet soda. In a 2014 study on the effects of artificial sweeteners in sodas on the human body, researchers were surprised to see that these sweeteners might not be beneficial to one’s overall health. When discussing the effects of artificial sweeteners, Eran Elinav, one of the lead researchers, states, “We identify artificial sweetener-altered microbial metabolic pathways that are linked to host susceptibility to metabolic disease, and demonstrate similar artificial sweetener-induced dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in healthy human subjects”(Elinav). In simple terms, artificial sweeteners have been linked to causing problems in healthy humans’ metabolism including microbial imbalances in the gut and higher glucose levels in the blood, which can lead to hyperglycemia and diabetes. Some metabolic problems cause the body’s metabolism to decelerate, causing the body to gain weight. Again, cutting calories by drinking diet soda does not seem beneficial as greater complications arise as a result of consuming the artificial sweeteners.

Diet soda has been used as a Band-Aid solution to a much bigger problem. Losing weight requires determination, focus, and commitment to a new regimen and exercise schedule. Replacing regular soda with diet soda may, at first glance, seem like an effective way to create a calories spent/consumed deficit, but further research and analysis suggest that the opposite is true. The artificial sweeteners in these drinks have been linked to over consuming the avoided calories and have also been linked to internal complications with the metabolism and digestive system. There is no instant gratification in dieting. Changing one’s body composition takes time, and diet soda does not serve as a tool for assisting that change. For those interested in a zero calorie drink that does not have any side effects, how about a glass of water?

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