People are always shocked when I tell them that I am a holistic health coach who drinks diet soda. They usually believe that my preference for diet soda means that I’m not actually a health coach who knows what he’s talking about. Today I am going to put that one to rest and help you live healthier, more sustainable and holistic lives. To know more about holistic health in general, check out this blog post “What is Holistic Health”, but as far as today’s topic goes, I’m going to be responding and reacting to a study that just came out here in China.
Recently, I was forwarded a photo from a friend here in China. The photo was of a doctor who concluded that diet soda, while healthier than regular soda, led to increases in obesity and diabetes. Immediately, I pounced on this opportunity to react to these outrageous claims because, time and time again, the data has shown that this is not the case. For full transparency, I am going to show the original message, along with the translation of that message side-by-side.
While I haven’t read the doctor’s findings because they are in Chinese, I am sure that what he referring to is the correlation between obese people and diet soda. Yes, it’s true. Obese people tend to drink more diet soda. However, this is observational data, and we have to remember that correlation does not equal causation. I’ll repeat that again: correlation does not equal causation. You can correlate just about anything if you search hard enough. To show you how ridiculous this can actually be, take a look at this article that shows the 10 most bizarre correlations.
Anyway, the problem with correlating these two entities together is two-fold. First, it leads to spurious correlations and misinformation for the public, especially someone like a doctor who is perpetuating these claims. Second, is this idea of reverse causality and that is what might actually be going on here. In this case, is it the fact that diet soda makes people more obese? Or is it the fact that obese people tend to drink diet soda more often because they are trying to lose weight and get healthier?
Do you see how this is an issue?
Randomized Control Trial Studies
To solve this, we need to look at randomized control trials, which are the gold-standard when it comes to research data. It just so happens that there was an awesome study done in 2016 by Peters et. all where they took over 300 participants and split them into two groups. One group was asked to refrain from all artificially sweetened beverages and only consume 24 ounces of water every day, and the other group was told to only consume the same amount, 24 ounces, of diet soda every single day.
What’s really nice about this study is how well it was controlled. Each participant was scheduled to go to monthly meetings; they were given the same kind of nutritional information there and were weighed. And they received the EXACT SAME instruction. That’s important to note. To control for calories as best as they could, they took each individual’s BMR and multiplied it by 1.6 putting them into an equally proportional calorie deficit and they also did the same amount of exercise and activity. There were two phases to this study. One phase was a weight-loss phase consisting of twelve weeks, and the other phase was a 40-week maintenance period to see how well they kept off any weight that they might have lost. The only difference is that one group drank diet soda and the other group drank water and refrained from diet soda.
If Doctor Chen Wei’s hypothesis about diet soda creating a sweet craving and making you want more food was actually accurate; or that it’s somehow increasing your insulin so you’re going to store fat regardless of caloric consumption; or if it somehow disrupted the gut microbiome which messed up your blood glucose and insulin sensitivity and all that stuff. If any of those things were actually true, then we would expect to see that in this study after a year. But that never happened.
The researchers thought that there wasn’t going to be a difference between the two groups, but there was. A big difference.
The diet soda group lost 3 more kg in bodyweight than the total participants. What’s more, they kept off more weight during the maintenance period, like 2.5 kilos more than all the total participants. So this is out of all 300 participants who started the study. That is the data for that. However, 223 of those individuals actually completed the study, which means they went to all the meetings and adhered to everything perfectly. Out of those people, there was actually a 5 kg difference in weight loss and better weight maintenance as well.
In fact, it was so amazing that the researchers had no idea what to make of this data. They were kind of dumbfounded. And, to be honest, I don’t really know either.
There is no data to support that diet sodas have magical fat burning properties. However, what I do think what happened, and what the researchers postulated, is that because the diet soda group had some sort of sweet flavor in the soda, they weren’t seeking that sweetness in the other areas in their life like the food that they ate. This most likely resulted in a lower caloric consumption despite the efforts in the researchers to control for this.
And, actually, during the course of the study, the only-water group reported being hungrier than the group who had diet soda, so it helps further along that hypothesis as well. You’ll see in the image below three columns and their hunger levels at the beginning, after 52 weeks, and their change. You’ll see the NNS group (the artificial sweetener group) reported feeling less hungry after the study and the water group had a significant rise in hunger.
As far as blood markers go, there wasn’t any difference in those factors. Actually, the group that had the diet soda, the diet soda group had significantly lower blood pressure than the group that didn’t have diet soda. Again, this isn’t due to diet soda probably, this is due to the fact that they lost more weight. They lost 5 more kg than the other group.
Now if this was only one study, then I’d say that maybe this is just a fluke. However, this actually supports two more studies done that show diet soda leading to a reduction in weight. Blackburn Et All conducted a two-year study that showed, “the aspartame group lost significantly more weight overall and regained significantly less weight during maintenance and follow-up than did the no-aspartame group.”
Another six-month study done by Tate Et all showed “replacement of caloric beverages with noncaloric beverages as a weight-loss strategy resulted in average weight losses of 2% to 2.5%.”
Of course, feel free to check out these studies more for yourself; I have linked them down below at the end of this article. Before you go running for the hills, though, and grabbing your diet sodas, there are also studies that show diet soda had no significant reduction on weight loss, which is what is to be expected if calories are equated.
What I really think is going on, though, is that diet soda creates a kind of appetite suppressant effect. Sort of like coffee. We don’t feel as hungry when we drink diet soda, and thus we consume less calories. From my own personal, anecdotal experience, I know that diet sodas do tend to fill me up and I believe it is that carbonation in diet sodas that does this. Understanding this, if you are trying to lose weight, then diet sodas may be a very helpful tool in doing so.
In terms of being bad for blood markers and gut microbiome, this study would have shown something, but it didn’t. There isn’t one study done on humans under normal conditions that shows any elevated risk of cancer or diabetes or disrupting the gut microbiome. The studies that have done that have been conducted on rats in a lab where they give them a superfluous amount of aspartame that would be impossible to replicate in normal human conditions. And another study put a hefty load in a petri dish with ecoli to show that it disrupted gut microbiome, but again, too much of anything is a bad thing. Too much water is even bad for you. It’s called drowning.
I am not saying that you should drink diet soda. I am saying that if you choose to drink diet soda, then you cannot make the argument like this Dr. Wei made where it causes you to become obese or become diabetic. If anything, you can make the argument that it aids in weight loss because of the three studies that again I will link at the end of this article.
Again, this is probably just due to the fact that diet soda creates an appetite suppressant effect and so we consume fewer calories when drinking it. When we consume fewer calories, we eat less and thus lose more weight. That is as simple as weight loss gets folks.