Is diet soda bad for you?

Is diet soda bad for you? Image by: Author: Canadian Living


Is diet soda bad for you?

Recent studies – as well as some dating as far back as the 1980s – link artificial sweeteners (AS) such as aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), cyclamate (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin) and sucralose (Splenda) to overeating, obesity and even type 2 diabetes.

Linda Gillis, a registered dietitian and assistant clinical professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, says there are three unsavoury aspects of AS. First, by suppressing hunger, they may make us eat more. "Hormone signals in the gut tell you when you're full," she says. "Studies show that there's no rise in hormones when consuming aspartame."

Second, researchers think the hyperintense sweetness of AS may overstimulate taste receptors, causing a preference for unnaturally sugary flavours – to the exclusion of naturally sweet fare such as fruits and vegetables. Gillis says the research doesn't point to a causal relationship. "It's a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Do AS create a preference for overly sweet, high-calorie foods, or do we crave these artificially sweet foods because we're missing out on a healthy diet?"

Third, animal studies suggest AS may affect brain chemistry, altering serotonin levels and contributing to sleep disturbances. "Lack of sleep 
is even more harmful than low activity levels and unhealthy diet for maintaining a healthy body weight," says Gillis. She avoids AS in her 
own diet. "I would not recommend them to anybody – diabetic or not," she says.

But Angela Dufour, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist 
in Bedford, N.S., disagrees. "Non-nutritive sweeteners won't affect blood glucose levels, so they're useful in a diabetic diet," she says. "Because they have zero calories, they can also be used for weight loss…as long as you're not making up for a zero-calorie drink by consuming [high-calorie food] with it."

Dufour is confident the Splenda she consumes is safe. "Extensive research is done to prove safety and effectiveness before Health Canada approves an AS for use," she says, adding that Health Canada has set acceptable daily intake limits. For example, the daily limit of aspartame is 2,000 milligrams (a can of diet pop may contain 200 milligrams) and the limit of cyclamate is 550 milligrams (one packet of SugarTwin contains 264 milligrams).

Natural sweeteners
There's a lot of buzz around natural sweeteners such as stevia and agave, but are they any healthier?

Stevia, derived from the Stevia rebaudiana plant, is technically an AS (like other non-nutritive sweeteners, it won't affect blood sugar). Some people grow the plant and use its leaves to sweeten tea. While Health Canada has not given an official word on the safety of stevia leaves (because not enough research exists), it has approved the use of stevia leaves and extracts in some natural health products.

Agave nectar, which is refined from the Mexican agave cactus, is about 25 percent sweeter than sugar, but otherwise isn't much different; agave has 60 calories per tablespoon versus the 45 calories in sugar.

Rather than seeking sugar alternatives, try cutting your consumption of sweets – period. "If you fill up on nutrient-dense food that's high in protein and fibre," says Dufour, "you'll be less likely 
to crave sweets."

A great way to cut sweet beverages from your diet is to drink more water. Here are some steps to drinking fewer calories for healthier ways to indulge your cravings. 

This story was originally titled "Pop mountain" in the August 2013 issue.

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Is diet soda bad for you?