Dear Dietitian: I am on a diet and I usually drink one or two diet sodas a day. A co-worker insists diet sodas cause weight gain instead of weight loss. Is this true? – Suzanne
Artificial sweeteners, also known as nonnutritive sweeteners or NNS, made their debut with saccharin in 1884 in Germany. Saccharin was sold in the U.S. under the brand name Sweet’ N Low. Today, there are numerous NNS on the market, some of which are aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), sucralose (Splenda) and Stevia.
Most NNS are consumed in diet sodas in the U.S. Artificially sweetened beverages and foods have allowed diabetics and dieters to enjoy sweetness without calories.
Studies are mixed when it comes to artificial sweeteners and weight loss.
In a randomized trial, 303 overweight participants were assigned to drink 24 ounces of either water or artificially sweetened beverages. Both groups were on a weight loss plan. At the end of three months, those who consumed the artificially sweetened drinks lost more weight (13 pounds) than those who drank water (9 pounds). The increase in weight loss is attributed to the opportunity to satisfy a sweet tooth with something that has no calories.
It is important to point out the American Beverage Association funded this study. When a particular group funds research on its product, there is a risk of bias in favor of the product. However, other studies have had similar results.
There is some concern NNS leads to weight gain. An eight-year study found a strong link between people who use artificially sweetened beverages and weight gain. Those who drank the most diet soft drinks gained the most weight. This study was observational, which does not prove cause and effect. It’s also important to note most people who drank diet soda were overweight at the beginning of the study compared to those who didn’t use artificial sweeteners. They also identified themselves as dieters and long-term weight gain is associated with chronic dieting.
There is one case in which using NNS is ineffective and likely will lead to weight gain. Some people think they are saving calories by drinking a diet soda, so they allow themselves a chocolate bar for an afternoon snack. While an occasional chocolate bar is harmless, fresh fruit and low-sugar yogurt are better options, but you already knew that, right?
Nutrition experts make a strong point that the risks of consuming a high-sugar drink are greater than the risks of consuming nonnutritive sweeteners. In the context of a weight loss plan, I believe the use of NNS likely will help you reach your goal.
Leanne McCrate, RDN, CNSC, is an award-winning dietitian based in St. Louis. Her mission is to educate consumers on scientifically based nutrition.She can be reached at email@example.com. Dear Dietitian does not endorse any products, health programs or diet plans.