Diet Sodas And Weight Gain: Is There A Link?

By:    Published: November 9, 2012

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For many years, people who are trying to watch their weight have reached for diet sodas in a number of varieties. However, some research is suggesting that this practice is ill advised for a number of reasons. Even kids have gotten in on the trend, and this could be most troublesome of all.

The flavors that a person craves are a conditioned response that begins in utero. However, as people grow and change, so do the tastes that they crave. Until the discovery of aspartame in the 1960s, people only had the choice of sugar when they desired something sweet. With the development of artificial sweeteners, many people found a free pass to eat as much sweetened foods and drinks as they wanted without all the extra calories or the consequences that go with them. Unfortunately, this line of thinking still remains untrue since no one really knows what effects these products have on the body.

Conditioning The Brain

The brain learns early in life that there is a relationship between a sweet taste and the calories that the body needs to survive. This is called the food motivation and reward system, and it works like a built-in calorie counter. However, multiple studies have found that in those who consume diet products, specifically diet sodas, at least once per day, this built in "calorie counter" doesn't function the way it should.

One study conducted jointly by the University of California, San Diego and San Diego State University found that even though people rate the sweetness of both diet drinks and sugar sweetened drinks about the same, the brain reacts very differently. The region of the brain that showed the most diminished level of activity is also the area of the brain associated with the food motivation and reward system mentioned above, called the caudate head, though hunger and satiety signals require complex activity in other parts of the brain as well. As the consumption of diet sodas increased, the level of caudate head activity decreased. This area of the brain has previously been linked to obesity.

This study supports the findings of a previous study using lab animals. In a study conducted by Purdue University, researchers discovered that when food delivered calories unreliably, the brain's ability to regulate food intake suddenly goes haywire. This means that people who regularly drink diet sodas, but consume sugar in foods, (remember, there are many sources of sugars including carbs and naturally occurring sugars in addition to regular sugar) are short circuiting their food motivation and reward system.

While further research is needed, the aforementioned studies indicate that diet sodas may affect a person’s decision in food choices and calorie intake.

[Related – Dangers Of diet Soda: Reality Or Myths?]

The Gut

If the effects of artificial sweeteners on the brain aren't enough, the gut is also affected by them. There numerous bacteria in the human digestive that serve a variety of functions. One of those functions is sending a signal to the brain that it is full while eating. These bacteria help to break down the food a person eats and produce short-chain fatty acids. The body can use these fatty acids for fuel and, in a healthy diet, an appropriate amount of these fatty acids are produced and will signal satiety. However, in diets that are high in sweets of any kind, both sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened, more and more of these fatty acids are produced. Over time this interferes with the satiety signals sent to the brain that tell a person he or she is full.

The Mentality

Psychology also plays a role in the weight gain attributed to diet sodas. Dr. Barry Popkin, a professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the author of "The World is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race," says that there is evidence to suggest that some people rationalize less than healthy diets by drinking diet soda, something he calls the "I'll have a Diet Coke with that Big Mac crowd."

Basically, the theory goes that some people will consistently eat unhealthy foods such as fast food, foods that are fried or foods that are high in sodium or fat because in their mind they aren't consuming extra calories in their drinks. And while it's true that diet sodas have no calories or sugar, what ends up happening is that people are consuming even more empty calories because they think the diet soda gives them a free pass. While actual evidence to support this phenomenon is lacking, it is a plausible theory.

Children And Diet Sodas

There seems to be a trend among parents allowing children to have diet sodas instead of other drinks, and the rationale is that they are cutting back on the child's sugar intake. Less sugar has to be good for the child's health, right? The answer to this is still unknown though many have some concerns.

Because of the evidence that supports diet sodas can lead to weight gain, some believe that switching juice drinks and other high sugar drinks with diet sodas could be contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States, as well as possibly leading to metabolic problems in adulthood.

[See – Preventing Childhood Obesity: Helpful Tips]

In addition, other studies have linked the artificial sweeteners in these drinks to a variety of health problems. But what is really troubling is that researchers just don't know yet if there are any long term effects associated with diet drinks when given to a child whose body is still growing and developing. Experts believe that ongoing research is needed to evaluate the safety of artificially sweetened drinks for children and they agree that until then children should stick to milk or water.

While further research is needed, numerous studies are leaning towards a link between diet sodas and weight gain. Those who are concerned about weight gain or diabetes are better off sticking with plain water.

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