By Rennie Aranda, Skinny Gene Nutritionist
Sugar in regular soda or artificial sweetener in diet soda…Which sweetener is healthier? The soda debate! Whether you call it soda, pop, soft drink, etc., it is no doubt that these drinks are highly consumed in the U.S. But the big question for these avid soda drinkers is…diet soda or regular soda, which is better for health? Believe it or not, this is a very polarizing issue, and for good reason. The goal of this article is to lay out all the facts, and hopefully by the end, you’ll know if you are consuming the right drink for you.
Before we compare regular and diet soft drinks, let’s think about our diet and sugar. There are two kinds of sugar – naturally-occurring and added. Both kinds of sugars are included in “sugars” listed on food labels.
Added sugars are sugars and syrups put in foods and drinks in preparation or processing. They contribute zero nutrients, but have added calories that may lead to weight gain, which reduces heart health. You want to obtain most of your calories from “essentials” to meet nutrient needs instead of added sugars that our bodies don’t need to function properly.
Naturally occurring sugars are found in foods such as fruit, low-fat milk and yogurt, that provide important nutrients for good health as opposed to eating nutrient-poor, highly sweetened foods with added sugars.
To determine if a product contains added sugar, check ingredient lists for words such as: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, syrup, and table sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that…
- Women should limit sugars to 80 calories per day (approximately 5 teaspoons or 20 grams),
- Men should limit sugar intake to a max of 144 calories per day (approximately 9 teaspoons or 36 grams)
- Children (ages 4-8) should limit sugar consumption to 48 calories (approximately 3 teaspoons or 12 grams) a day.
On to the debate!
Let’s take a look at what separates regular soda from diet soda – the ingredients:
Regular soda ingredients include phosphoric acid, caramel coloring, carbonated water, natural flavors, caffeine, and high fructose corn syrup.
Diet soda ingredients include everything in regular soda (except high fructose corn syrup) plus aspartame, potassium benzoate, and citric acid.
Aside from sugar and artificial sweetener (aspartame), there are other potentially dangerous ingredients in soda. Both drinks contain phosphoric acid, which is linked to osteoporosis since it prevents the absorption of calcium in the body. The caramel coloring, also found in both regular and diet soda, is linked to vascular problems and may further increase insulin resistance and inflammation in the body. Carbonation in these drinks also robs the body of nutrients and minerals, especially calcium.
Sugar vs. Artificial Sweeteners: Which is the lesser of two evils?
CONS: ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
Regular soda drinkers may argue that recent studies suggest that diet soda may not be the healthier alternative since artificial sweeteners in diet drinks may increase sugar cravings and encourage poor food choices. This is because artificial sweeteners increase the desire for (and consumption of) sugar-sweetened, energy-dense beverages and foods, or disrupt the consumer’s ability to accurately estimate energy intake and remaining energy needs (refer back to recommended intake of added sugars). This often results in overconsumption, increased body weight, and consequent metabolic dysfunction.
Added artificial sweetener acts similarly to MSG in the body, known to increase feelings of hunger. Non-sugar sweeteners confuse the brain, because taste receptors in the mouth feel something sweet and trigger a cascade that includes preparing for insulin secretion to use the perceived glucose. Without glucose present, insulin resistance may develop as the body is unable to properly use produced insulin. In addition, aspartame has been linked in some studies to various cancers and neurological problems. Until further research reveals the potential dangerous long-term effects of aspartame, it is best to avoid altogether.
CONS: ADDED SUGAR
Consumers may prefer diet soda over regular soda to limit added sugars in the diet. Sugar is the main ingredient in regular soda that separates this product from diet soda. A 12 oz can of regular soda contains about 40 grams of sugar – that’s about 10 teaspoons of added sugar (i.e 10 sugar packets). A 20 oz glass of regular soda could have a whopping 22 packets of sugar! This is more than the previously mentioned recommendations set by the American Heart Association. The minimum amount of daily added sugars in the diet is exceeded in just one drink. For this reason, health practitioners may suggest diet soda over regular soda, which is especially important for diabetics who need to control their blood glucose, or sugar in the blood. Since there are 0 grams of carbohydrate per serving, diet soda will not raise blood glucose. Not only will regular soda raise blood glucose, it also provides about 150 calories in just one serving (12 oz can).
The amount of sugar regular soda poses is a much more immediate health threat than the potential dangers of long-term use of aspartame, especially for diabetics.
Adverse health effects of drinking regular soda vs. diet soda
Regular soda is typically associated with poor health, but recent studies show that people who drank diet soda every day increased their risk for strokes, heart attacks, and vascular events by 61%. Those with increased risk factors for vascular disease should reduce their consumption of diet soda. These risk factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, a family history of cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome.
In another study, consumption of diet soda was associated with a 36% greater relative risk of incident type 2 diabetes compared with non-consumption. To summarize the study, daily diet soda consumption was associated with significantly greater risks of two metabolic syndrome components (incident high waist circumference and fasting glucose) and type 2 diabetes.
Since diet soda is being advertised as being “healthier”, people tend to consume more of it. However, diet soda is still associated with some of the same health problems associated with regular soda. This is largely due to the artificial sweeteners in diet soda increasing feelings of hunger and cravings for real sugar, resulting in an overall higher calorie intake and making poor food choices. Diet soda should be viewed like regular soda and only be consumed occasionally, if at all.
However, regular soda is not off the hook! To those that enjoy more than an occasional soda, proceed with caution. Just 1 can (12oz) of coke a day can cause more than 15 lbs of weight gain a year. How many pounds would you gain from drinking 1 big gulp a day of soda? What about a liter (about 3 12-oz cokes)? That would be about 45 lbs a year from soda alone! This is because the sugar overload from soda results in higher overall calorie intake, which leads to weight gain. As weight increases, so does the risk of type 2 diabetes, along with other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, tooth decay, inflammation, and increased risk for heart disease and stroke.
In a recent study, one 12oz daily increment in sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened soft drink consumption was associated with a 22% increased risk of type 2 diabetes. After adjusting for energy intake and BMI, there was still an association between sugar-sweetened soft drinks and type 2 diabetes.
How do I choose which one is best for me?
Whether you are deciding between regular soda and diet soda, there’s no denying that both are not the healthiest drinks to consume. There is contradictory evidence that both advocates for and criticizes diet soda, which can be very confusing. The bottom line is this: Before you reach for a diet or regular soda can, consider your overall health and general eating patterns. Do you already exceed your recommended daily limit for added sugars? The best way to stay within recommended limits is to avoid soda altogether. Instead of trying to decide which is the lesser of two evils, aim for beverages free of added sugars, artificial sweeteners, calories, and chemicals and hydrate yourselves with a refreshing glass of water.
Take the Pledge!
You’ve read the facts about regular and diet soda, now it’s time to take the pledge. Pledge to yourself your renewed commitment to your health! Please check the box below and let us know what you’ve pledged to do.
Please note, if you are an avid soda drinker, kicking the habit may be easier said than done. If you would like help safely stepping away from the soda and towards some healthier alternatives, please contact us. We’d be more than happy to provide you with a free plan to kick the coke habit. Simply click the GET HELP button to let us know how to reach you, and a Nutritionist will contact you as soon as possible.
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