Diet soft drinks can make you fat

Does diet soda make you fat?

A study just published in the American Journal of Public Health, that included almost 25,000 participants, showed that overweight and obese diet soda drinkers tended to consume significantly more solid-food calories per day than overweight and obese people who drank non-diet (i.e., sugar-sweetened) sodas.

Consumption of diet soda by healthy-weight people doesn’t have the same effect.

It’s a bit confusing, but in a nutshell, you’ve got two groups of people who are overweight/obese.  One drinks diet soda, the other drinks regular (sugary) soda.  For some reason, the overweight/obese diet soda drinkers actually ate more calories per day than the overweight/obese regular soda drinkers.

But that’s only among overweight/obese people.  Among people who have a healthy weight, those who drank diet soda ate fewer calories during the day than those who drank regular soda.

According to the study’s abstract, “the net increase in daily solid-food consumption associated with diet-beverage consumption was 88 kilocalories for overweight and 194 kilocalories for obese adults.”

Soft drink via Shutterstock

Soft drink via Shutterstock

One of the authors, Dr. Sara Bleich cites previous research to try to partially explain the results. She says that artificial sweeteners may interfere with the way the brain normally senses “sweetness.” If you drink sugar containing beverages, the increased sugar in the blood makes the brain think that you are full and you stop eating. The artificial sweeteners don’t produce the same effect. They seem to make the brain sense that you are less full and allow for continued eating.

So overweight or obese people who drink diet soda may, in actuality, be causing an increase in their appetites. For some reason, this isn’t the case in normal-weight people.

Health-weight people who drink diet soda consume fewer calories on a daily basis than Health-weight people who drink sugar- sweetened soda. In the normal-weight group, there is usually no significant weight gain irrespective of whether they drink sugar containing or diet sodas. The authors don’t have an explanation for why this happens. Additional research will be necessary to discover the mechanism for this.

The authors recommend that overweight and obese people who drink diet soda closely monitor and restrict calories in an effort to lose weight since diet soda seems to be having an effect opposite to the one desired. They advocate for balancing caloric intake with caloric expenditure through exercise.

Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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66 Responses to “Diet soft drinks can make you fat”

  1. MaureenABA says:

    Exactly right: it’s not exactly groundbreaking that this study determined the total number of calories one consumes impacts their weight. That’s really the only thing this study shows, and this “research” certainly fails to overturn the vast body of science that proves the safety and
    efficacy of these beverages as a diet tool. If the goal of studies such as these is truly to reduce obesity, then the main message here should be moderate intake of all calories consumed countered by calories burned through physical activity.

  2. Matt Rogers says:

    From what I can tell, they compared overweight people who drank diet sodas with overweight people who drank sugary sodas — but not with overweight people who drank neither.

  3. Matt Rogers says:

    I find there are some well-done medical studies, but many others that are either methodically unsound or don’t have real-world application. As perljammer noticed, the difference in the number of calories is pretty small already. It could become inconsequential or even be reversed if the drinks themselves were included in the calculations.

  4. rmthunter says:

    For one thing, soda’s cheap — you can frequently get two liters of Coke or Pepsi or RC, or any of their other name brands, for $.99, house brands for even less. Even the cheapest fruit juice will probably run a bit more, maybe $.50 for concentrate. If you’re on a tight budget, as I was for a number of years, that makes a difference. And just think about how effective the marketing is — and how pervasive. I noticed recently at a couple of AMC theaters in town — the filler before the trailers start is all about AMC — and Coke.

    I stopped drinking soda when I started paying attention to high fructose corn syrup, which is one of those things that shouldn’t be in food to begin with. Soda is nothing but corn syrup, sugar, water, and flavorings, with a little bit of carbonation thrown in to keep things iively. (Right — add carbonic acid to the mix.) If you drink a no-sugar-added fruit juice, it’s sweet enough without extra calories parking themselves around your waist line or in your liver. (A word of warning — HFCS is in everything — I found it in pork sausage [Jimmy Dean’s, if you’re interested]. They add it for texture and body.)

    Forgive the wandering off topic. At any rate, I don’t really miss soda at all — in fact, I’m at the point where I don’t like it very much and try to avoid it. Which just goes to show you — it can be done.

  5. Whitewitch says:

    I knew you would point me in the right direction – even if you didn’t know the answer.

    You are a rock start Doc!

  6. docsterx says:

    Though the study doesn’t say so, perhaps whatever beverage that is sweetened artificially will produce the same result. Though that still needs to be determined.

  7. docsterx says:

    Good question and I don’t know the answer. I’d assume that no, the donor wouldn’t get anesthesia since he’s dead. There would be no need for it. But since I don’t know, and there may be some difference in how harvests are done from state to state, I’d recommend that you contact your local donor agency and see what their protocol is. You can use this link to locate your nearest donor organization:

  8. me too says:

    i’m glad they qualified that this correlation only applies to fat people. that being the case, it is clear that it is not something in the diet sodas that is responsible for this and that the correlation is as spurious as that between rape and ice cream (increasing rates of ice cream consumption is strongly correlated with increasing incidents of rape by strangers). in my experience in an office environment,diet drinking fat people delude themselves. they drink diet coke all day, but have a desk drawer full of snickers.

    they seem to spend a lot of time thinking and talking about food, and are obsessed with the eating habits of their non-fat co-workers to the point where they come up with theories as to how we remain slender (everything from high metabolisms–which is completely discredited, metabolism rate increases with weight–to us having flagellant,hair-shirt wearing relationships with food–which more appropriately describes their relationship with food).

    despite drinking diet coke pretty much everyday at work, at 42 i weight the same as i did at 15, when i stopped growing. my weight hasn’t changed because my caloric intake hasn’t changed, because my appetite hasn’t changed. regardless of what’s on offer, if i’m not hungry, i’m not hungry. the same sentiment is voiced by the rest of the slender people in my office (our weight is often the subject of conversation at work)–and considered lies by the fatties.

    ps: i could care less if “fat” has become politically incorrect. fat people are fat. using “overwieght” exacerbates the problem because it sound like a trifling thing, that minimizes 40 inch waists and diabetes.

  9. The_Fixer says:

    I have thyroid issues as well (underactive) and take a supplement that has herbs along with iodine in it. I also watch what I eat, keeping carbs low and protein higher. I no longer eat french fries or any other deep-fried foods, seldom drink soda. I generally limit myself to light (1-3 drinks) drinking once every two weeks or so, and do a lot of dancing when I do go out to the club. I also take virgin coconut oil, and try to get as much exercise as I can. That’s tough to do in winter, but I at least try to walk around the local mall a lot. In the summer, you can’t keep me off my bike (unless it’s raining, of course).

    I lost about 35 pounds and gained a lot of energy. I do gain weight in the winter (usually about 5-10 pounds), but it comes off fairly quickly once summer rolls around.

    In short, there’s no magic bullet to my approach in dealing with it. It’s a series of small things that add up to making a big difference. And I occasionally cheat – what good is being in good health if you can’t have fun every once in a while?

  10. The_Fixer says:

    Yup. The last time I really frequently drank soda was when I was a teenager and the few years after that. My drink of choice for a lot of my adult life was coffee. When the caffeine started to bother me (I really was drinking an excessive amount of the stuff), water became my go-to.

    I occasionally have orange juice in the morning, and like the premium or carbonated apple and grape juices for a treat. I seldom drink soda (unless it’s a mixer for alcoholic drinks, and that’s once every 2 weeks or so). Basically, I think it’s not good for you in any more than a small quantity.

  11. Whitewitch says:

    Wow Kelp – I forgot about

  12. Whitewitch says:

    Hi Docsterx, totally Off Topic….

    If you were to be declared “dead” in a hospital and by your own request elected to be an Organ Donor, could you stipulate that the “corpse” (for lack of a better term) be anesthetized?

    I totally do not want to be maintained on Life Support, but would also like to assure that I don’t feel anything when they are removing my organs…I know silly and goofy since the theory is that the body feels nothing, but after years of suffering here in the physical plane, I would not like my last 10 seconds to be spent “feeling” anything,

  13. Whitewitch says:

    I quite “real” soda about 10 years ago, and drank very few “diet” until about a year ago when I gave that up. I have tried very hard to switch to black coffee (although I do throw splenda in one in a while).

    It is funny how soda has become so prevalent in our world. I remember, in the “olden days” when soda was a real treat. Only, once and a while, like cake or ice cream. We mostly drank from the hose when we were outside – and there was only water or milk in the glasses at our table.

  14. GarySFBCN says:

    I’m using iodine and kelp – no meds yet. Seems to be working.

  15. Whitewitch says:

    I have a thyroid that is malfunctioning, and I can tell when I have forgotten my medication…I become tired and feel like I need more fuel and so I eat more. When my thyroid is working – I “burn” and feel more efficient in my fuel use.

    Funny how one little tiny gland can have such an effect.

  16. perljammer says:

    The article is about overweight and obese people, right?

    The footnotes in your chart say that the “reference woman” is 5 ft 4 in tall
    and weighs 126 lbs. This is hardly obese or even overweight; in fact,
    it’s the “ideal weight” for a woman of this height, and 1600
    Calories/day is the recommended amount if she’s 11 – 13 years old, or
    over 50. The weight-maintenance Calorie intake for a 35 year
    old, 5 ft 4 in sedentary woman who weights 200 lbs is about 2050

    A 35 year old sedentary 6 ft man weighing 180 lbs
    requires 2329 Calories/day to maintain that weight. Crank his weight up
    to 250 lbs and it’s 2874 Calories/day. At a grossly obese 350
    lbs, it’s 3653 Calories/day.

    So, what’s the point of all this? If someone is eating an extra 194 Calories/day, they are going to gain weight. Duh. But, they are not going to gain weight at a steady rate forever (or until they die). They will gain at a steadily decreasing rate until they reach equilibrium at their new maintenance level.

  17. GarySFBCN says:

    “Could simply be that overweight and obese people simply eat more calories than average or underweight people, regardless of whether that item is sweetened artificially or with sugar.”

    Not in my situation. For some reason, possibly due to a diagnosed pituitary problem that may be affecting my thyroid, my once-stable metabolic rate is now variable. When everything is OK, I don’t gain weight and with moderate exercise, I lose weight . But when my system is out of balance, consuming the same amount of calories, and same amount of exercise may have me gaining weight.

    I know that many overweight people ‘eat more’ etc, but not not all.

  18. Bill_Perdue says:

    !!!!ICED TEA!!!! with or without splenda.

  19. rmthunter says:

    How about just not drinking soda?

  20. docsterx says:

    I read the abstract and an article that reviewed the paper. Neither mentioned anything about the questions you raised. They may be addressed in the original article, but that is behind a paywall and is expensive.

  21. docsterx says:

    If someone overeats by 88 calories/day that adds up to an increase of around 0.5 pounds per month. Not a huge amount, but if it continues for years at 6 pounds/year it can get significant.

    And remember in these studies, people are instructed to pay strict attention to what and how much they eat. Some subjects in experiments cheat. They may record more or less caloric intake. And, when the study is done, their eating may increase as they go back to their pre-study eating patterns. So that half a pound per month can quickly go up to 2-3 pounds per month or more.

  22. docsterx says:

    1. The study did NOT show that overweight people eat more and normal people (note not “normal” people) eat less. The study compared caloric intake in overweight, obese and average weight subjects who either drank sugar sweetened or artificially sweetened soda. It did NOT study total intake by body weight in any group.
    2. None of the information from the study says that it was financed by any group, much less “one that “will determine the outcome.” If that had been the case, the study would have had tot include a disclaimer saying that Company X provided funding for the research.
    3. This “useless” study uncovered a fascinating bit of information. Average weight people respond (or fail to respond) to artificial sweeteners in the same way that overweight and obese people do. In the overweight-obese groups who drank diet soda, their caloric consumptions went up. This didn’t happen with people of average weight. Perhaps there’s something different in the obese person’s biochemistry – a hormone reacting differently. Maybe there’s a gene that is active in overweight people that accounts for this. There are dozens of hypotheses that I can make. This definitely needs much more research to answer this question. It could give us a better insight into obesity, and perhaps, even diabetes. With the epidemic of obesity increasing in America (and elsewhere) this could be extremely important.
    It also showed that, counterintuitively, drinking diet soda does NOT help obese people to lose weight. That’s important for obese people trying to reduce their weights to know. That doing something that sounds luke it’s decreasing caloric intake (drinking diet soda) is actually stimulating them to eat. Sometimes it’s very important to do basic reserch because we sometimes assume that science is logical when it isn’t always so.

  23. goulo says:

    “Overweight people eat more and healthy people eat less” was not actually the point of the article, even if that’s all you got out of skimming it before dismissing it.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I read that HFCS stops the body from feeling sated. It blocks a protein called leptin produced to tell your body it’s full. The caloric content is almost irrelevant. Unnatural, processed chemicals like HFCS and aspartame mess with your body. Unfortunately the science goes over a lot of people’s heads, and they don’t listen to “soda is bad.”

  25. dula says:

    Lol She sent it by messenger, I believe.

  26. Monophylos Fortikos says:

    I wonder if Crawford ever gave Ernestine Tomlin her dime back.

  27. cole3244 says:

    i’ve tried pepsi many times over the years and i just don’t like it compared to coke, water is still my beverage of choice though.

  28. dula says:

    Artificial sweeteners can sometimes fool the body into thinking it consumed actual carbohydrates, causing an insulin response. Then your blood sugar goes down and you crave more food to bring it up, especially carbs.

  29. nicho says:

    No one ever got thin drinking diet soda — and no one ever got thin drinking “light” beer.

  30. dula says:

    OK Miss Crawford

  31. Anonymous says:

    Better make that Pepsi :)

  32. cole3244 says:

    my beverage intake consists of about 95% water & 5% soda usually coke, that’s probably the most soda i have consumed because while working i drank only water, try it you might like it.

  33. Whitewitch says:

    Hmmmm coffeee…gotta run get a cup.

  34. bkmn says:

    I’ve gone from drinking far too many cans of sugared pop (mid west lingo) per day to maybe one or two cans per week. Instead I drink either water or unsweetened iced or hot tea.

    NutraSweet (trademark-Monsanto) confuses your body in many ways, one of which is highlighted in this article. Add to that the fact that my taste buds always make diet drinks taste bitter, so I have never liked them (other than an occasional Fresca & vodka, but I digress).

    I am also willing to bet that normal weight people have a tendency to under-report their physical activity and are more likely to take a flight of stairs or park at the far end of the parking lot than those who are overweight or obese. At the health club the ones circling the parking lot looking for a close in space are usually not the thinnest.

  35. emjayay says:

    Apparently the fat people just substitute more food for the lower diet soda calorie intake and keep their blood sugar up. Moral of the story: if you can limit your calories while drinking diet sodas, you’re better off than if you didn’t drink diet sodas. For me, the carbonation and enjoyment makes up for calories I’m not eating. Well, more than not. I don’t notice any lack of sugar enjoyment. A cup of coffee with sugar is by far the best. But I only do that with the tiny sample cups at Trader Joe’s.

  36. emjayay says:

    Mmmmmmmmm cherrrrry cooooke. Thanks for reminding me. But colas have more bad effects than non-colas.

  37. emjayay says:

    Waist Watchers brand diet sodas are sweetened with Splenda, and no more expensive. Yeah, I know. But Stevia can’t crank up the sweetness far enough, besides costing a lot more, so it’s not used in diet sodas. Long article about the topic in a recent New Yorker.

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  39. mark_in_toronto says:

    Overweight people eat more and healthy people eat less. Really?
    It took a long and expensive study to prove that?
    Things haven’t changed much . . . consumers are still as gullible as ever – and studies are still financed by those who will determine the outcome. Remember the Saccharin scare? Or, how many more studies will we have concerning the benefits/hazards of coffee, wine or chocolate?
    Everything is bad for you . . . remember that.

  40. Monophylos Fortikos says:

    It’s too bad because I genuinely prefer the taste of diet sodas. I can’t drink regular sodas at all any more; even when heavily iced and freshly carbonated they taste like syrup to me.

    I suppose I should just drink water but I’ve never been good at that. I don’t know why.

  41. SkippyFlipjack says:

    I remember eating one of the items on a cheese plate in Paris and realizing it was butter.

  42. Drew2u says:

    Speaking to alternative sweeteners, While hopping on and falling off of Keto, I’ve noticed that fake sweeteners – especially that in sugar-free Jell-o – makes me want to eat/crave more until I down the entire box (4 servings) worth of the stuff.
    Right now I’m limiting my sweeteners to almost zero to see if my Keto results are better. I think I may be one of those people who gets kicked off of Keto through artificial sweeteners.

    (and on that note, I think I posted this before, but I caved and got a Wendy’s burger after almost passing out after Karate, and the ketchup was WAAAY too sweet to the point of being inedible)

  43. Drew2u says:

    And I also, too, therefore-Palinism, drink unsweetened iced tea. Around here that’s the norm. When I was in Tennessee, I had to specify Unsweet, and even then I still sometimes was given a cup of sweet tea.

  44. Drew2u says:

    I gave up Coke products due to Russia, otherwise Coke Zero was my staple.

  45. Yeah, that’s what we wrote, and that’s what the study found. Fat people who drink sugary pop eat fewer food calories during the day than fat people who drink diet pop. That’s why I was saying it’s complicated, it’s kind of confusing to read. I felt like I was reading a law book.

  46. I don’t buy it. Look at my analysis above.

  47. I’ve attached the USDA recommended caloric intake chart. You’re right, the avg, depending on your age, and your lifestyle, is 2600. For a woman the average is perhaps 2000. Then again, if you’re obese, I’m guessing you’re not “active” and might even be “sedentary,” which means for a man the number of recommended calories is more like 2200 to 2400 calories a day, and for a woman it’s more like 1600 to 1800 . So it really depends on your lifestyle before we just say 2600 calories is the correct amount.

    Second, obese people showed 194 calories eaten more per day. If you’re a woman, and you’re an obese woman who is sedentary, and your’e supposed to eat 1600 calories, that’s 12% more calories each day. If you use the 1800 calorie avg for women, that’s 11% more calories per day. That is hardly insignificant, IMHO, which is why the study called it “significant.”

    Think of it this way. For women who are supposed to eat 1600 calories a day, they’re eating an entire day’s worth of extra food every 9 days. That’s a lot.

    For men, even if we use the 2600 calorie a day figure, the extra 194 cal a day is 7.5% more calories a day. So every two weeks, that man would be eating an extra day’s worth of calories. So in one year, he’d be eating an extra 26 day’s worth of calories, or almost a month of extra food. Now tell me that that’s nothing :)

    Granted, it depends on your gender, and also your lifestyle, in terms of what your daily intake should be, and these numbers are averages, since we don’t have the study in front of us.

  48. pogden297 says:

    And your point is?

  49. Naja pallida says:

    The equivalent of about five Ritz crackers. Not really sure that really amounts to enough to be statistically relevant. That could be attributable to just about anything.

  50. Matt Rogers says:

    “For some reason, the overweight/obese diet soda drinkers actually ate
    more calories per day than the overweight/obese regular soda drinkers.”

    I’m wondering what the results look like when calories due to food and drink — including sugary sodas — are combined. Would the overweight and obese participants who drank diet sodas still consume more calories than those who drank sugary sodas? If so, how much more?

    More to the point, was greater weight gain or worse health outcomes also found in the diet soda group, or just greater calorie consumption?

  51. perljammer says:

    This caught my eye: “the net increase in daily solid-food consumption associated with
    diet-beverage consumption was 88 kilocalories for overweight and 194 kilocalories for obese adults.”

    At first I thought, “88,000 and 194,000 calories?? Holy cow, no wonder these people are overweight!” Then I remembered my high school physics. A kilocalorie is the “Calorie” used to express the energy contained in food. A “calorie” (one one-thousandth of a kilocalorie) is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree C.

    So, overweight people who drink diet soda (or “diet pop”, as John calls it) consume an average of 88 Calories per day more than “normal” people. Doesn’t seem like much — the average Calorie intake for US women in 2000 was 1877; for men, 2618. So, 88 extra Calories is an increase of 4.7% for women and 3.4% for men.

  52. heimaey says:

    There is a theory that the Nixon administration, when they made food cheaper and easier to get, started a trend here in the US that zaps all the nutrients out of our food. We tend to eat more because of this and that’s why we’re fatter. So you may be on tom something.

  53. Whitewitch says:

    See “Consumption of diet soda by healthy-weight people doesn’t have the same effect.”

    No where in this article does it say that obese-weight people who don’t drink diet soda don’t have the same effect.

    Me sooooo confused.

    EDITED: The study conclusion “Heavier US adults who drink diet beverages will need to reduce solid-food calorie consumption to lose weight.” Nothing about NOT drinking diet beverages.

  54. Whitewitch says:

    Ohhh I understood completely John. I admit I did have to read it a few times. That said….did they compare people who were obese and overweight and DID NOT drink diet sodas to see if they ate more…because I did not get that from the article.

    I got normal people who drink diet soda – don’t eat more as a result.
    Fat people who drink diet soda – DO eat more as a result.

    Didn’t see anything about

    Fat people who DON’T drink diet soda, I will reread to see if I am just a dork…very possible.

  55. KarenJ says:

    I’ve avoided diet soft drinks for so long that they make me a little nauseated, when I do drink a rare 12 oz. That’s a good thing, I think, considering the number of multisyllable chemicals in them.

  56. That was my thought. But I’ve always suspected something like what Mark is saying. When I go to France I lose a lot of weight, every time. And I don’t eat that well. And I don’t exercise either, I’m stuck home blogging all day. But what I do eat is fat. I eat butter. No one eats margarine, my friend think it’s gross. I eat full-fat desserts, in small portions. And everything fills me up. I wonder if our less fat diet doesn’t make you want to eat more to feel satiated. Then comes the question of the kinds of fat etc…

  57. I’m not sure if you understand what the study found. It’s very confusing, I tried editing the text for a while.

    They found that those overweight and obese people who drank diet pop ate MORE SOLID FOOD CALORIES during the day than overweight and obese people who drank regular pop.

    For some reason, overweight people who drink diet soft drinks tend to eat even more than had they simply chosen to drink non-diet soft drinks during the day.

    The other weird thing is that regular weight people showed the opposite – people who drank diet tends to eat fewer calories too.

  58. heimaey says:

    We all have our struggles and admitting it is empowering.

  59. heimaey says:

    Totally respect that. I hope to one day find the strength. I cut my soda intake in half about a year and a half ago (including diet) and I only allow myself to drink it a few times a week as opposed to multiple times a day. It’s a weakness I have and I admit it.

  60. Whitewitch says:

    I struggle with my weight….I cut out all diet soda for over a year now…it has had NO effect on my ability to control my eating. I am overweight BECAUSE I eat toooo much. I have a problem, it is hard for me to stop, even when I am full if something tastes good I eat it and then I want more…..I like it…it is a hobby for me…and I have to control it.

    I am getting pretty good at controlling it, I exercise and I watch what I eat and I don’t have anything I like (like junk or candy or ice cream) in my house, so I have to go out to get something if I want to “cheat”.

    The real deal is that I simply can (and have) been one of those who eats TOO much. It is okay to say that – it is empowering to say it…..and it can be controlled – although it is really hard.

    I love Coke Zero as well!!!!

  61. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I have learned to drink the table wine of the south (ice tea) unsweetened. I’m no longer drinking Coke products because of their sponsorship of the Olympics. Too bad, because I did like an occasional Cherry Coke Zero.

  62. heimaey says:

    Right – and I’m not obese. Therefore, I am not giving it up.

  63. heimaey says:

    That’s what my first thought was. They feel they can intake more because they’re drinking diet soda. Not sure what physiological effect it would have on them.

  64. Whitewitch says:

    Could simply be that overweight and obese people simply eat more calories than average or underweight people, regardless of whether that item is sweetened artificially or with sugar.

    I think studies like this simply overlook this very basic fact….big people eat more, drink more that is why they are big….not that the diet soda makes them eat more.

  65. Kalil says:

    Uh, Coke Zero is a diet soda. Aspartame…

  66. heimaey says:

    Good – I’m not giving up my coke zero. I love it.

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