Diet soda: weight loss wonder or canned crap?

by Denis Faye | May 27, 2014

Diet-Soda-and-Too-Much-FoodWouldn’t it be rad if diet soda and other “foods” packed with artificial sweeteners were, like, miracle foods? That way, we could eat and drink them all day long while losing weight, reversing diabetes, clearing our arteries, and just being generally awesome!

Sadly, this isn’t true. However, I wouldn’t be too surprised if you didn’t know this, given that the artificial sweetener industry (Big Not Sugar) has been working double shifts lately trying to convince you that sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, and all the other white, powdery substances named after Lord of the Rings elves should be part of your daily diet.

A couple weeks back The Calorie Control Council (a Big Not Sugar non-profit puppet) put out a press release touting “New Research Analyzing 35 Years of Data Confirms Positive Effects of Low-Calorie Sweeteners in Weight Loss.” Luckily, the mainstream press didn’t seem to pick it up. Only a few even more puppety Big Not Sugar blogs like skinnyonlowcal.org covered it

The reason for this is probably that if you look at the actual research, you’ll notice that this press release headline was a lie right up there with “I’m not a crook” and “I didn’t inhale.” The research looked at several randomly controlled trials (controlled experiments) and several perspective cohort studies (investigations of people’s behaviors out in the world) to deteCLINTONrmine the effects of low calorie sweeteners on weight. In the RCTs, people lost more weight using the sweeteners, but in the PCSs, people who used artificial sweeteners actually gained weight.

Some argument can be made that a RCT are more controlled and therefore more accurate than a PCS, but whatever. You guys still lied anyway. You are lying liars.

And then there’s today’s announcement of an industry-funded (uh-oh!) study in the journal Obesity claiming that artificial sweeteners promoted weight loss. The study compared people drinking water versus people drinking diet soda on a 12-week weight loss program. The soda sippers lost slightly more weight (about 4 pounds, on average).

Luckily, what Big Not Sugar press relations thought was going to be like shooting fish in a barrel turned into a piranha attack, thanks to some grade-A reporting (finally) from the media. CNN went after the study, pointing out that 12 weeks isn’t enough time to determine the health benefits of anything. They pointed to another, longer study showing that diet soda drinkers were “at increased risk of excessive weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

CBS took a slightly more objective stance, but also pointed out older research sandbagging diet soda.

Either way, it’s pretty obvious short-term weight loss studies don’t mean squat when talking about longterm health. It’s not just about taking the weight off. It’s about keeping it off. (In fact, that’s a big part of my work at Beachbody, helping people with the long haul.)

The actual study mentioned that it had two parts, the 12-week weight loss phase and a 9-month maintenance phase. For some reason, the results of the maintenance phase aren’t reported on in the document. Not sure why. Maybe it’s still in progress. Either way, I’d kind of like to see that intel, even though it doesn’t matter that much. Given the study didn’t count calories, the most likely reason for that bonus weight loss is that the soda drinkers felt more satisfied and were therefore less inclined to snack. In other words, in order to maintain weight loss, you need to keep drinking diet soda indefinitely to keep from craving more real food. How convenient for Big No Sugar. The long-term impact of regular diet soda consumption is a huge topic of debate, so you’re basically just playing Russian Roulette in order to lose 4 pounds, 3 months faster.

Instead, I recommend that you tough it out with water for a few more months. You’ll lose the same weight without getting your metabolism addicted to a bunch of chemicals that humans have only been consuming for 50 years–not nearly enough time to figure out their long-term damage potential.

Diet Orange Crush or diet Agent Orange? It’s your call, weight loss fans.


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