OK, I am not going to rant. But I need to get this out of my system: I think diet soda is awful. I think all soda is awful, actually (yes, I know there are no “bad” foods, but I hold soda in approximately the same regard as those puffy orange Circus Peanuts — these are not really “foods,” per se). Diet soda, in my view, is especially insidious.
Here are my top 10 reasons:
1. There is absolutely no proof that diet soda helps people lose weight. The calorie-reduction argument is total bunk, and zero studies have shown a positive correlation between drinking diet soda and weight loss. On the contrary, there’s significant evidence that diet sodas and other noncaloric, artificially sweetened drinks actually lead — quite powerfully — to weight gain. (See “6 ‘Healthy’ Food Choices to Rethink” for more on that.)
2. Diet sodas are billed as being good for type 2 diabetics and other blood-sugar- challenged types, but they aren’t. Because of something called the “cephalic phase response,” your body tastes the sweetness, and even though there are no calories to shuttle, the brain triggers a release of insulin from the pancreas and also a “Sugar is coming! Stop-burning fat” response from the liver. The result is the usual array of insulin-related problems (increased urge to eat, increased tendency toward fat storage, pro-inflammatory biochemical cascade), plus an arrest of healthy protein-and-starch production, and a confusion of the body’s built-in caloric monitoring systems, all of which compel you to plump up and eat even more unhealthy stuff later. (For more on this dynamic, read the article, “Poor Substitutes.”)
3. The act of drinking diet soda — and of seeing it in your fridge — sends your psyche a slew of negative, demoralizing, less-than-healthy mental messages (I am afraid of getting fat; I don’t trust my body to crave the right things; I need to be on a diet; I am compelled to drink sweet stuff, even though I know it’s not good for me; I’m being “good” now so I can be “bad” later), all of which tend to drive other unhealthy eating behaviors even as they trigger disempowering feelings of self-denial and self-indulgence. (For more on this dynamic, see my Thoughts From the Editor column, “View to a Fridge.”)
4. Diet soda contains all kinds of icky chemicals that add to your body’s toxic burden, lowering your immunity, contributing to inflammation and reducing your body’s ability to deal effectively with other, less easily avoided toxins like those pervasive in our food, water, body-care products and environment.
5. Diet sodas and the chemically derived artificial sweeteners they contain (especially aspartame) may act as neurotoxins and have been linked to headaches, memory problems, anxiety, brain fog, depression, skin irritations, menstrual problems, fibromyalgia, joint pain and more. (You can read up on the scientific debate about this both in the aforementioned “Poor Substitutes” and in our article “Excitotoxins.”)
6. Artificial sweeteners and artificial colors tend to drive cravings for more sweet and hyper-flavored foods (more diet soda, please!) and reduce your ability to properly taste more subtle flavors or natural foods, perverting your palate and dissuading you from making other healthy changes to your diet because nothing natural tastes the way it ought to.
7. Frequent sipping or gulping of diet soda blunts your thirst, reducing your intake of pure water, which is a much better choice for hydration and helps to clear toxins from your system (vs. further polluting it). Regular imbibing of soda may also interfere with your body’s healthy hunger signals and thus dissuade you from eating healthy snacks that would support good nutrition, metabolism, energy and mental function throughout the day.
8. The acids in diet soda (and regular soda, for that matter) eat away at the enamel on your teeth. They also are acidifying to your entire system, and thus disruptive to your general health, including the good flora in your gut, where about 60 percent of your immune system resides.
9. Diet soda (like regular soda) is generally bottled or canned, and its aficionados tend to drink it by the case, multi-liter twin pack and so on — day in, day out, year after year after year. Habitually imbibing packaged drinks creates all kinds of nonbiodegradeable garbage, and every aspect of soda production (from manufacturing and packaging to transport — and even its recycling) is an unnecessarily wasteful use of fossil fuels. Drinking any soda is also incredibly expensive, an important point for anyone who protests that they can’t afford high-quality food or decent nutritional supplements.
10. Despite all its amalgamated cruddiness, diet sodas somehow get a pass in practically all weight-loss plans, and are actually promoted by many dietitians as “free” foods or “good” treats despite the fact that they are categorically lousy for people. They are aggressively advertised as being “better choices” for health- and weight-conscious people, and as a result, many kids and teenagers make them a habit early in life. Every time I see this pro-diet-soda dynamic in action, it just chaps my hide and makes me dislike the stuff even more.
OK, I wound up ranting a little. Sorry. I know that many people who adore diet soda and have been sold on its wonderfulness may take issue with my demonization of these beverages. To which I say: Let’s agree to disagree. If drinking it makes you happy enough, or is an occasional enough dalliance that none of the above matters, drink away!
And to those who find themselves addicted to diet soda, I can only say take heart: Thousands before you have broken the addiction and found themselves astonished by how much better they feel.
My recommendation: For a week, start each day with a big bottle full of pure water with a slice of cucumber or orange or lemon floating in it. Sip away, avoid the soda aisles and vending machines, and just see if you don’t start feeling better yourself.