Can Diet Soda Make You Sick?

Is diet soda a smart way to save calories?
Is diet soda a smart way to save calories?

By Deborah Wilburn

It's the perennial question: How bad is that concoction of chemicals and coloring in your favorite diet soft drink? Is it a harmless alternative when you're trying to control calories?

The jury is still out, but a new long-term study of heart health suggests diet beverage consumption, along with overall diet, may contribute to your risk of developing metabolic syndrome. The list of health problems metabolic syndrome can cause is long and scary. It doubles a your risk of heart attack and stroke, and contributes to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and even some forms of cancer.

Diet soda pros and cons

The latest research, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, followed the dietary patterns of 4,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 30. The study began in the mid-1980s, and over a 20-year period, 827 participants developed metabolic syndrome. The researchers discovered that those who drank diet soda were more likely than those who didn't to develop the condition.

There was one caveat: A healthy diet may help mitigate some of the effects of diet soda. Over 20 years, 20% of the men and women who followed a "prudent" diet (one rich with fruit, vegetables, whole grains, milk, nuts, and seeds) and drank diet soda developed metabolic syndrome, compared with 18% of those who followed the same eating style but didn't sip diet soft drinks. Most at risk were those adhering to a "Western" diet of fast food, meat, pizza, and snacks, all washed down with diet soda. By the end of the study, 32% of those folks had developed metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic Syndrome: Could you have it?

What it means for you: If you love a soda now and then, do a quick whole-health inventory before cracking one open. Make sure you're not doing anything else that could potentially boost your blood pressure, blood sugar, waist size, triglycerides, or cholesterol (the cluster of factors that make up metabolic syndrome). If you're diet is healthy -- 100% whole grains; healthy fats from olive and canola oils, and nuts; low- or fat-fat dairy; lots of fish; loads of fruit and veggies; and as little red meat, saturated fat, and refined sugar as possible -- an occasional diet soft drink won't do much to raise your risk of metabolic syndrome.

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But for an everyday low-cal pick-me-up, consider tea or coffee. Hot or iced, both are overflowing with heart-healthy antioxidants. And of course, for the ultimate in thirst quenching, nothing beats water.

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