Can’t live without your daily can of diet cola? You’re not alone — roughly one in five Americans drink diet soda on any given day. But that zero-calorie beverage might come with some serious health consequences. A recent study revealed that among older adults, diet soda drinkers saw their waistlines increase three times as much over nearly a decade, compared to adults who didn’t drink diet soda.
To explore the relationship between diet soda consumption and health, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center analyzed data from 749 adults age 65 and older. At the beginning of the study, researchers recorded height, weight, waist circumference and diet soda intake of the participants.
Your Body on Diet Cola
The results don’t bode well for fizzy fans. Over a nine-year period, people who drank diet soda saw increases in waist circumference that were triple the increases observed in nondrinkers. Regular diet soda drinkers experienced a 3.04 centimeter increase in waist size, compared to 1.76 centimeters for occasional users (less than one but more than zero bottles a day, on average) and .77 centimeters for nondrinkers.
That’s enough of an increase to make you want to consider buying new jeans — but it could have more serious consequences, too. Increases in belly fat of this magnitude have been show to lead to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, says study author Helen Hazuda, Ph.D., Professor of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Center.
Big Gulp, Bigger Guts
“If artificial sweeteners are 200 or 600 times sweeter, you might actually start consuming even more sweet things due to cravings.”
Yet, it doesn’t seem as if diet soda lovers are lazier, or less knowledgeable about healthy eating. Those in the study were actually more likely to have a higher education and to be more active during leisure activities, compared to nondrinkers.
“It seems the valid conclusion would be: People think they’re doing something healthy [by consuming diet sodas],” says Dr. Hazuda. “[But] I think the mounting evidence suggests they are likely not good for you.” So how does a beverage with no calories cause you to pack on fat around your waist?
It seems as if artificial sweeteners could be to blame. Hazuda points out that a number of human and animal studies indicate that faux sweeteners may damage beneficial intestinal bacterial in the gut. They may also disrupt the way a person’s body secretes leptin, a hormone that helps you feel satiated and controls hunger.
Zero-calorie sweeteners could make you more likely to indulge in sugar-y treats, too. “These artificial sugars have a very intense, sweet taste,” Hazuda says. Aspartane, saccharine and sucralose, all common in diet colas, are exponentially sweeter than natural sugar. “If artificial sweeteners are 200 or 600 times sweeter, you might actually start consuming even more sweet things due to cravings,” she says.
Desperate for an afternoon pick-me-up? You might want to skip the soda machine and sip on coffee, tea, mineral water or plaid old water, says Hazuda. Previous studies suggest artificial sweeteners are associated with weight gain in younger adults and children, too. When it comes to regular and diet sodas, sip at your own risk!