The diet soda challenge

The quick answer:  America’s love affair with diet drinks was a big mistake.  Our recipe for better health: water, on the rocks, with a slice of lime.


Heard of the Ornery Rule?  My invention, I confess, but it says you can count on someone finding the stuff you like the most . . . to be unhealthy.  Like sugar.  We’ve taken on America’s love for sugar—excess sugar is our single biggest health problem—with these Healthy Changes:

#1   If you consume sodas or other sugared drinks, limit yourself to one (12 oz.) serving per week. 

#3   Cereal products must be made of whole grains, and have more grams of natural fiber than grams of sugar.

#6  Drink lots of water; make it your main drink.

#8   Buy candy a piece at a time; never bring a box or bag of candy into the home.

#12 Enjoy a healthy mix of snacks by making a daily snack plate.  (Because sugary snacks are often impulsive, this adds the virtue of premeditation to snacking.)  

#25 Don’t skip breakfast.  Start your day with a healthy breakfast rich in antioxidants with more fiber than sugar.

Non-sugar sugar?

A little history?  In the beginning there was no sugar, just natural sweeteners like honey,  By and by, someone discovered how to make sugar from cane and in the 1600s, colonies were established in the New World to meet the growing demand.  Fortunes were built on the sugar trade.  Even before the cotton plantations of the South, slaves were taken from Africa to the Caribbean to work the cane fields.  In Europe, because sugar was so precious at first, it was usually sold in drugstores (apothecaries).  As the effects of eating sugar became apparent, doctors began to warn of its dangers.

During this time there arose in France a lawyer turned food writer named Brillat-Savarin.  In 1825 he composed the first important book on food, The Physiology of Taste.  It became a classic and nearly two centuries later is still a good read.  Brillat-Savarin observes how health concerns about sugar were met with the mindless rejoinder, “sugar hurts nothing but the purse.”   A learned man even promised that, “if sugar should ever again be thirty sous a pound, I will drink nothing but eau sucree.”  He wasn’t alone, which brings us to America’s love affair with sugar alternatives.

In 1890 it was discovered that saccharine gave the taste of sugar without the calories.  Prescribed first for diabetics, it was approved for general use in 1958.  Some remember it for launching Diet Rite and then Tab, the first big diet drink.  With saccharine, it seemed, you really could have your cake and eat it too, if you didn’t mind the bitter aftertaste.  Other artificial sweeteners followed: including cyclamates (no longer approved in the US); and aspartame (NutraSweet, or Equal), the most controversial of the sweeteners.

Coca-Cola, building on the popularity of Tab, introduced Diet Coke, which used aspartame.  Launched in New York City in 1982 with a $100 million advertising campaign, Diet Coke was an immediate success and is now the #2 soft drink, after Coke.  Not to be outdone, Pepsi, Dr Pepper, and Mountain Dew brought out diet versions.  Again, as with sugar, a few doctors spoke out against the danger of artificial sugars but the temptation of both sweetness and slimness was irresistible.

Are diet drinks really healthier than sugar drinks? 

This brings us to the big question:  Are diet drinks healthier than sugary drinks?  Long story short, diet drinks really are unhealthy, but in different ways.  For example:

  • Preterm delivery risk:  A 2010 Danish study found pregnant women who consumed one diet drink daily at 38% higher risk for preterm delivery.   There was also a dose response: women who drank four per day had a 78% greater risk.  No such risk was found for sugar drinks.
  • Metabolic syndrome:  A nine-year study of 9714 people, age 45 to 64 years, reported in 2007, looked for dietary causes of metabolic syndrome (which we discussed here).  High meat intake was found to be a significant risk but the big surprise was that diet drinks increased the risk 34%. 
  • Osteoporosis: There is a longtime link between diet drinks and osteoporosis, but the exact cause remains unknown.  Is calcium leached from the bones to buffer the phosphoric acid?  Or, do soda drinkers just get less calcium from sources like milk?  We haven’t figured it out yet, but perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that research against highly profitable products doesn’t get funded.
  • Kidney stones:  Where does the calcium lost from the bones go?  Some winds up as kidney stones.  An NIH study of kidney stones found two or more cola drinks each day double the risk for stones.  As the most popular drinks, sugar or diet, are colas, urologists will be busy treating those painful stones. The calcium in your diet isn’t the problem—a 1993 study found calcium from food protects against kidney stones. 
  • Stroke and heart attack: A U. of Miami study of 2500 Manhattan residents followed over 9 years found a 61% higher risk of vascular events (heart attack, stroke, or vascular death) for daily diet soda drinkers vs those who abstained.  Even after controlling for known risk factors, a 48% greater risk remained.   
  • Weight gain:  There’s a bag-full of studies showing diet sodas add rather than reduce weight but this shouldn’t be news.  Back in 1986 a study of 78K women ages 50-69 found nearly 2 pounds per year greater weight gain for women consuming artificial sweeteners vs. women who didn’t.  A pound or two isn’t much, but multiply it by 28 years (since Diet Coke was introduced) and you’re looking at a big gain.

The problem of weight gain for diet soda drinkers was addressed in a Yale review of prior studies.  The conclusion was that artificial sweeteners reinforce the sugar desire, without satisfying it as regular sugar does.  No surprise then that the national weight gain of recent decades parallels the growing use of artificial sweeteners—the more we eat, the more we want. Good for business, but bad for health.

There’s true irony here:  Diet drinks—despite the marketing—don’t make us slimmer, what’s worse they introduce new health risks.  We’ve been through the sugar binge, high fructose corn syrup, saccharine, and aspartame, and the bottom line seems to be that we must return to olden ways and recover our taste for flavors other than sugar, whether real or artificial. A little sugar is okay, but we've gone way past a little.

Healthy Change #31 reads much like our first Healthy Change: 

Budget Wisdom:  Americans spend about $12 billion yearly on soft drinks, I’m told.  Drinking less bottled drinks, way less, and more good old water from your tap (well, after it runs through the charcoal filter) will save you money that can be better used to buy whole foods, as well as your health.  Water on the rocks with a twist of lime—you can't beat it for value, convenience, or healthfulness.

Please comment:  This is a challenge because diet drinks are tempting, especially for moms who want something to pick them up on busy days, which can be everyday.  For this reason I’ve saved it until our 31st week—after you’ve gained strength from the dietary improvements and extra exercise.  If you’ve successfully cut back on diet sodas, please share your experience.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (22)

This was a tough one for me, but not as much for my husband. I worked in restaurants for the better part of 5 years and all of them offered free soft drinks for employees. It was difficult to resist the instant pick-me-up they offered. However, I suffer from migraines with aura (loss of vision, numbness, etc) that are triggered by caffeine and sugar (or even carbonation, as I began to notice) so I had to change my ways. My husband has digestive issues and had already discovered the healing power of water and encouraged me to stick with it. To this day, I reach for water whenever I'm feeling a headache coming on instead of a soda and I've noticed a faster recovery.

We find it's useful to have a jug of cold tap water in the fridge- it makes it easier to reach for when we're thirsty, especially since our water comes out warm in the summer.

Another issue we've experienced in our family is weaning our preschooler off juice. He was just drinking way too much of it to the point where his sugar intake was out of control (and the expense was as well). It was a rough transition, but I gradually watered it down more and more and encouraged him to drink water ("Oh, isn't this cold water so good? I love cold water!). Now he gets "juice" once or twice a day (1-2 tbsp juice:6 oz water) and he doesn't ask for it as often.

Now, if only we can wean ourselves off other sugary products... :)

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia

I've been drinking Diet Coke since before I was born (literally.) My family is all addicted to it. I quit successfully cold turkey when I was 16, and stayed off for 3 years. I didn't find it hard at the time, but boy, I've been trying to quit Diet Coke for 4 years now and am having the hardest time. I went off caffeine last year and only buy the caffeine free stuff. Now I need to start transitioning to not drinking it at all.

I don't worry about my water consumption - I drink over 100 oz. of water a day. But yeah, I know I shouldn't be drinking Diet Coke and yet it's so delicious, darnit. And it's sort of a cultural thing in my family too. Sigh.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKris

I have never been much of a soda drinker, especially diet, but ever since we moved to a hotter climate nothing sounds better on a hot day than an ice cold coke. To curb the soda intake, we keep the fridge well stocked with flavored sparkling waters (like the Le Croix brand). If we are feeling extra fancy we'll throw in some pomegranate juice. I don't know if the carbonation is very good for you, but it usually keeps me away from soda.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

I've never been much of a soda drinker. I have never liked diet soda. I figure if I'm going to drink a soda it will be a soda made with real sugar (not HFCS) and not diet. What's the point of enjoying a soda as a treat if it is diet? I occasionally buy Hansen's soda or Sierra Mist natural for my kids and husband. They love soda and would drink it constantly. I stick to buying it when we go to a barbecue and I know there will be other sodas or for a treat in the summer. We drink water every day- all day.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Soda isn't something we're too tempted by at our house (candy and ice cream is another story though) so I don't have any good advice on decreasing / eliminating it from a diet because we only have it at other people's houses and parties / functions. However, one other point I wanted to bring up that is dangerous about soda, diet or not, is how acidic it is and how it will start eroding your tooth enamel in about 2 weeks after just one serving a day. It's really horrible for your teeth and if it's strong enough to start eroding your enamel who knows what kind of damage it is doing as it passes through your digestive system.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina

I used to get soda all the time then I took on your first challenge. It was hard but I replaced soda with water and only have 1 soda a month (if that!) now. It's made a huge difference.

I'm curious if you have any information about Stevia for a sweetener. I've been thinking about buying a couple plants next spring (and a spice grinder!) and giving it a try.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRill

Man this is my weakness. For myself and my husband alike! I've grown up watching all members of my family drink ALL diet drinks. And now we do. My husband, a surgical resident, non-coffee drinker uses the stuff pretty much LIKE stay awake!
Myself, I do about the same...for an extra kick. Plus, I love the sweet taste.
Have tried over and over to quit. But it's my vice. I love it too much.
I'm trying, however, to be moderate. But man it's tough!

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

I see bad results in some members of my family that drink too much soda. I was able to give it up back in the 70's... WOW! At Christmas sometimes we have grape juice and gingerale - Mormon Champagne...and this was a tradition in my home as a little girl.

I put the juice of a lemon in my water bottle that I take to work (holds 3 cups), fill it with water and ice and sweeten it with pure Stevia. There are many Stevia products on the market that have other additives. I go for the pure stuff and get it at the health food store.

Thanks for your posts, Skip.

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNancy O

Soda is not that big a deal in our house. My daughter calls it "spicy" and won't drink it. My husband and I only drink water and we have passed this on to our children. Growing up, both of us only had soda when we had pizza, which wasn't often. True teaching starts in the home and when kids see their parents drinking and eating unhealthy things, they learn by example! My daughter doesn't even ask for juice and only wants water (or green smoothies) even at other people's houses. I love it!

I think something needs to be done about these awful "energy drinks" like red bull and 5-hour energy and whatever new one is coming out (they seem to come out with a new brand every month which suggests to me that this particular area of the beverage market is quite lucrative). I see teenagers drinking them and I can't help but think that they are ruining their health and minds. I was standing in line at my food co-op the other day and overheard two mothers boasting about how they have to down two red bulls in the morning just to get going. I was confused at the disconnect! These two moms were obviously aware of the importance of eating healthy by participating in the food co-op, but then proceed to show their children that they need to get energy from somewhere besides the good nutrients available in our produce. People need to realize that true, lasting energy and even the occasional pick-me-up, doesn't come from a drink, but from eating healthy, drinking water, getting exercise and good sleep..

Sorry for the soapbox, but the obvious problems with diet soda and energy drinks (not including the fact that they are highly addictive!) really get me going!

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily S.

Fortunately soda has never been a big thing in my family (both growing up and with my husband and daughter). We hardly ever drink it, and we NEVER buy it. One thing I really do want to work on though is cutting sugar in general, because even though we don't drink soda, we get plenty sugar! I'm curious if you know any dangers in drinking flavored water like crystal light?

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIhilani

Like a lot of people have mentioned, my soda is something that I only drink on occasion. Sugar is my true vice! I was wondering if you are planning on doing a more in depth post on sugar. As one reader suggested I would like to learn more about Stevia and natural sugar/ sugar alternatives. Are they really healthier, or just as bad for you? Thanks for all that you do. We all appreciate the time and work that you put into this blog.

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJessG

Soda isn't much of a problem in our home as we only buy Rootbeer if we order a pizza. My problem is not drinking enough water. I know I'm constantly dehydrated, but I just never crave water throughout the day and don't think to stop and drink. All of you that drink all day---do you keep a water bottle nearby? How do you do it?

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanelle Phipps

I have been drinking diet soda as long as I can remember. I would love some ideas on quitting. It is very difficult.

August 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie

Really interesting post. The studies you mention seem to confirm what we all know on some level--every thing we put in our bodies has some effect. Positive or negative. We all search for the one treat we can eat/drink all we want without consequences. But perhaps we need to accept that there is no such thing. We have to be moderate and temperate in all things in order to have the health we want. And the hardest thing is not understanding the nutritional rules we need to live by but regulating our desires for unhealthy things and teaching our bodies to love the foods which are healthiest for us. I think it can be done, but I think it will be most successful if it is lovingly done. That's my advice to those trying to give up diet sodas--treat yourself with true love along the way.

August 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterqueenann

I gave up Diet Coke over 20 years ago. The easiest way for me was to quit cold turkey. I had some about a year after I gave it up - on vacation, nothing to drink but soda, before bottled water was introduced. I probably had half a can. Ended up not being able to sleep that night and had a three-day headache. Haven't touched it since. I drink lots of water - needs to be ice cold. On occassion I drink a Fresca, but not very often. Wish I could be as successful in giving up sugar as I was soda.

August 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCheryl

soda has never been a temptation for me. on very rare occasion, maybe once a year, i'll drink a little. i saw this video today and had a good laugh. what a guy!
definitely makes me want to pop my head in the store, just for fun! and maybe try the Q-cumber soda!

August 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I was addicted to Diet Coke in my teen years. It had so much stronger of a hold on me than coffee or alcohol ever has - the headaches and withdrawals I got were ridiculously painful. I'm so glad I managed to kick it then, instead of continuing to let it run my life. I'm sad, however, to see the continuing trend of artificial sugars being the new "answer" to all our problems, and that people continue to buy into them.

August 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnni

I'm curious if you group Crystal Light and similar in the "just as bad as diet soda" category?

Skip: Close enough. It does give a little variety, the beautiful wife is known to use it, but once a week is probably a good rule here also. Well, twice, if you want. Best to you.

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterelizabeth

I gave up diet soda a month or two ago. Opened my last 12-pack, and told myself when it was gone, I was done. And that was that. I was worried I'd go through a withdrawal period, but I honestly never missed it. Haven't wanted one since, and giving it up definitely curbed my afternoon sweet cravings. Prior to eliminating diet soda, I'd been drastically cutting sugar out of our up the soda was my only struggle, but now that's it out of my system, I no longer have sweet cravings. Wish I'd done it sooner!

August 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

I don't drink sodas, never have (though I do love "shorle's", carbonated water with fruit juice, on occation), so I can't really give you any tips on how to reduce the soda intake, but I do have two tips wuith regards to the comments. The first to Janelle Phipps, who wondered how to get enough water; I usually have a 1 litre glass bottle of water next to me when I work, and I fill it up 3 times a day (I know that 3 litres a day is counted as excessive by most standards, but I tend to dehydrate in front of the computer). If you don't have an office job like I do, place a bottle of water and a glass somewhere where you pass by frequently and try to have some every time you do. I definitely recommend glass bottles as I find that plastic bottles give off an iffy taste and I'm currently mourning the loss of my precious lifefactory bottle (it broke when the full bottle fell out from a train unto the concrete platform, otherwise they can withstand a lot, well, at least it didn't shatter). If you are out and about a lot, then maybe consider investing in a bpa free plastic bottle or a metal bottle, and remember, the quicker you empty the bottle, the less you have to carry around ;)

As for the "soda" as pick me up; the best, quick fix pick me up that I have found is a miso soup (preferably the paste based one). It's quick acting and the effect lasts way longer than the effect of caffeine and sugar (particularly since they both have a tendency to dehydrate you, and dehydration makes at least me feel more tired than before).

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMims

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