Is diet soda worse than regular soda? It depends

There’s no shortage of articles and research papers circling the Internet on whether you should be drinking diet sodas, or even sodas at all. To put it extremely bluntly and save you about 5–10 minutes: No, you probably shouldn’t be drinking them.

But in this era of hyper-commercialism and food addiction (particularly in wealthier regions), I think it’s a little much to expect many of you to give up the small pleasures in life. It’s short, and sometimes pretty sad, so those little indulgences are a good way to cope with the mundane. I’m not saying go out and drink yourself into an early grave, but I do understand the need to escape and enjoy things in different ways.

It’s also worth mentioning that the accessibility and cheapness of these drinks are major contributors to our terrible diets around the world, and if we’re ever going to make global changes to what we eat/drink, we need to address the systems in place that pump out such unhealthy products (along with incredibly costly but effective advertising for them) for us to consume. But we’ll save that for another article.

Right now, we’re talking about whether you should be picking up that Coke or Coke Zero in your local corner shop (but don’t pick up either because it’s just a terrible company). The primary concern most people have with diet soda is the vast amount of chemicals in them that they simply haven’t ever heard of, such as Aspartame and Acesulfame k. These are calorie-free sweeteners that have faced a slew of scare-stories involving cancer and other life-changing diseases.

In reality, these claims are exaggerated. Is diet soda carcinogenic? Honestly, there simply aren’t enough studies to verify with absolute certainty that it is. It could be, and if it is, you would have to ingest such large quantities of it that your teeth would likely fall out from all the acidity. And regular soda is actually worse for your teeth because of the sugar on top of the acid. There’s about about 180mg of aspartame in diet coke, but the amount you would need to ingest in order for there to be the tiniest increase in risk of (bladder) cancer would be 1680mg, and you would have to do that every day consistently.

Another concern is whether diet soda can actually cause weight gain, but as I wrote in a previous post, gaining weight is primarily about eating a surplus of calories. Diet soda has no calories, so it is highly improbable that it will cause weight gain. It’s actually a pretty decent way to lose weight without sacrificing so many snacks you enjoy.

Now, I’m not saying diet soda is good for you. It’s not. It will increase your risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes (by 37%), and possibly double your risk of kidney dysfunction. But is it safe to drink every now and then? Probably, depending on your diet and lifestyle as a whole, and how much of it you drink. Is it safer than regular soda?

The only real difference between the two is the presence of sugar (sucrose or fructose) or presence of artificial sweeteners like saccharin or aspartame etc. etc. So really, what we’re asking is whether sugar is safer than artificial sweeteners. Despite what the Internet churns out, sugar is not carcinogenic, and it does not “feed cancer”. However, regular sodas are pretty high in calories thanks to the sugar, which can obviously lead to weight gain. That might not be an issue for you for whatever reason, but obesity does increase health risks, including 13 types of cancer (by anywhere between 8 and 60%).

However, if you understand caloric control and do not excessively consume sugary and other unhealthy foods, then you’re fine on that front. But it’s good to be aware of the other dangers sugar (over)consumption poses, including insulin resistance — which leads to metabolic syndrome, increasing risk of cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes — liver disease, poorer mental health and so on.

That’s not to say diet soda won’t have these risks as well, and more research into artificial sweeteners is needed anyway, but regular soda’s presence of sugar seems to make it the worse option.

It’s always best to get a second or third opinion though, so be sure to follow the links, ask your doctor, and then decide. But if you want to avoid those risks completely — if you did I doubt you’d have even bothered reading in the first place — then just stick to good ol’ H2O.

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Xain Storey

Xain is the co-founder and editor of BroFeed. He spends most of his time researching bioculturalism, building epic fantasy worlds, and wondering why people still trust their governments.

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