Regular soda or diet soda--which is worse?

By Nicci Micco, M.S., editor-at-large for EatingWell Magazine

The other day, as I wheeled my cart down the soft-drink aisle to pick up some seltzer, my 3-year-old pointed at the soda and said (loudly),"Soda's baaaaaaad." First thought: I've never directly said that to you… but right on, little man! Still, I didn't want my preschooler schooling all the people who'd come to pick up pop (as we call it where I grew up). That's just rude. So I said, "Well, we like seltzer better, right?"

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While I don't go around telling people soda is "baaaaaad," I don't think it's good: it's full of sugars or sugar substitutes; some kinds of soda, namely colas, contain phosphoric acid, which, according to some studies, may harm bones. That said, I don't always avoid soda: now and then, I'll order one to have with a burger or with popcorn at the movies. I usually order a Diet Coke. Why? For years, I drank tons of diet soda-and that's what my taste buds grew to like. But when it comes to diet soda versus regular soda, what's really the better choice?

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I decided to weigh the pros and cons of each. Here goes:

Con: It's full of added sugars, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. (Is high-fructose corn syrup really worse for you than "table sugar"?) High intakes of added sugars are linked with high blood pressure and high triglyceride levels, risk factors for heart disease-which is why the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting all sugars to no more than about 6 teaspoons a day if you're a woman, no more than 9 teaspoons if you're a man. A 12-ounce can of cola has about 8 teaspoons-which translates to about 130 calories. So one soda won't make or break your diet, particularly if you make room for it by cutting out something else, but if you drink too many, these calories can add up to major weight gain. Side note: One of my college friends lost 20 pounds in about six months just by eliminating sodas. (He'd been a big soda drinker.)

Pro: If you're trying to avoid artificial sugar substitutes, you won't find them in there. Yes, I know that some people consider HFCS a chemical akin to the artificial sweeteners found in diet sodas; if you're among them and crave a soda, you could consider a variety sweetened with cane sugar.

Con: It contains sugar substitutes, which some people prefer to avoid. (Related: Are sugar substitutes safe?) Some studies show that consuming no-calorie sweeteners may actually make you hungrier. But, in other research, scientists didn't find artificial sweeteners to stoke appetite, so the jury's still out on that.

Pro: Sodas with no-calorie sweeteners don't directly add calories to your diet; they also may be better for your teeth, since bacteria can't live on artificial sweeteners-they need sugars.

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So which is better? Only you can decide. Personally, looking at this pro/con sheet makes me thirsty for… some seltzer.

Diet soda or regular soda or none at all-which do you choose?

By Nicci Micco

Nicci Micco
Nicci Micco

Nicci Micco is editor-at-large for EatingWell and co-author of EatingWell 500-Calorie Dinners. She has a master's degree in nutrition and food sciences, with a focus in weight management.

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