Fattening Diet Soda? Study links low-cal pop to larger waistlines

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — No good deed goes unpunished, and that seems to include people who virtuously reach for diet sodas instead of the calorie-laden good stuff.

Before guzzling that artificially sweetened beverage in a haze of guilt-free carbonation, bear in mind that your diet soda may only be adding to your bottom line — or your waistline. At least that’s the conclusion of a recently completed 12-year study.

The study looked at 474 people, ages 65 to 74, and found that, on average, those who drank diet sodas ended up with waistlines that increased three times more than those who avoided them.

People who consumed more than two diet sodas a day had waistlines that increased five times more than the nondiet soda drinkers, which included people who drank water, juices and even regular sodas, said Helen Hazuda, chief of clinical epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, and one of the study’s investigators.

These results were comparable to similar studies in younger people, said Hazuda.

Belmont, Calif., resident Karen Krebser, 46, has been drinking diet soda since high school in an effort to help manage her weight. “I’m currently mostly off refined sugar and have tried a zillion different diets, but the one constant has been diet soda,” she said.

Krebser consumes three or four cans a day since she gave up refined sugar in April. But after hearing about this unpublished study — presented at the American Diabetes Association Conference in June — she threw out the can of diet soda sitting on her desk.

There isn’t a single explanation as to why drinks with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose or saccharin result in us having to squeeze our bulging bellies into larger pants.

Part of the reason could be psychological, Hazuda said. Some people splurge on calories in their food because they’re saving on calories in their drinks. Think Big Macs and super-sized fries and diet Cokes.

Another factor Hazuda thinks plays a role in expanding waistlines is something called taste dysfunction. Because artificial sweeteners taste hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than regular sugar, our bodies come to expect sugary foods to be extremely sweet. So we start to seek out more sugar-laden options.

A third explanation is that our bodies are smarter than we think. When we suck down sweet things, our bodies register the sugary taste and wait for the accompanying calories, said Lillian Castillo, a public health dietitian with the Santa Clara (Calif.) County Public Health Department.

But with artificial sweeteners, our bodies don’t get the calories they expect, so we start to crave foods high in fat and sugar.

Santa Clara resident Karl Watanabe has consumed diet sodas since his wife started buying them exclusively three years ago. But it hasn’t really affected his weight, he said. “Of course, it helps that I run marathons and do triathlons all the time.”

“Once in a while, it’s OK to have one,” Castillo said. “But water is the only thing that’s going to quench your thirst.”

If water is just too bland, Castillo and Hazuda recommended adding slices of lemon or cucumber to brighten the flavor.

It may take a couple months for your brain to adjust to the different flavors, but the research suggests if you want those six-pack abs, it doesn’t look as if you’ll be able to find them at the bottom of a six-pack of diet soda.