Diet Soda and Weight Gain – The Surprising Way Artificial Sweeteners Make You Fat

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Close-up of a glass of soda with ice.

Millions of people drink Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi and other ‘zero calorie’ sodas. Many of them probably think that they are making, if not a healthy, at least a healthier choice.

Most would also think they’d be more likely to lose weight drinking a product with ‘diet’ in the title. Surprisingly, research studies are showing they’d be wrong.

Here’s why drinking diet soda is actually more likely to make you gain weight than lose it and may also dramatically increase your risk of diabetes – a disease now reaching epidemic proportions in Western societies.

Weight Gain Studies

In the San Antonio Heart Study, conducted by the University of Texas Heart Science Center, researchers found, over the course of 25 years, that the more diet sodas a person drank on average, the more likely they were to become overweight or obese.

Participants were actually even more likely to gain weight drinking Diet Coke or Pepsi than they were drinking the regular high fructose corn syrup sweetened versions.

A woman drinking a faintly red sugary drink from a plastic bottle.

Here are two interesting quotes from their research:

“…it didn’t matter whether people were drinking diet or regular soft drinks: drinking sodas of any kind seemed to increase the risk of weight gain. In fact, drinking diet soft drinks seemed to be much more closely related to the incidence of becoming overweight or obese. “

And “…on average, for each diet soft drink our participants drank per day, they were 65 percent more likely to become overweight during the next seven to eight years, and 41 percent more likely to become obese.”

How could diet soda and weight gain be so strongly correlated? How could something sold to us as a weight-loss drink with no calories be making us fat?

It turns out that the calories in an individual soda aren’t nearly as important as the powerful ability artificial sweeteners have to provoke hunger.

Close-up of coke in a glass.

How Diet Soda Makes You Hungry

Another 2012 research study called ‘Altered Processing of Sweet Taste in the Brains of Diet Soda Drinkers‘ found that “Artificial sweetened beverage consumption has been linked to obesity”, is “associated with impaired energy function” and “alterations in the reward processing of sweet taste in individuals who regularly consume diet soda”.

To break down the scientist-speak: you drink diet soda, but unlike other kinds of sweet drinks, like say freshly made juice, it doesn’t satisfy you.

Your body knows there is no nutrition in it and it stimulates more hunger to get what it needs. This effect means you end up eating and drinking far more calories as a result.

It gets worse. Dr. David Ludwig has published research in the Journal of American Medical Association entitled ‘Artificial Sweetened Beverages: Cause for Concern‘.

In the scientific paper he says “overstimulation of sugar receptors by frequent consumption of hyper-intense sweeteners may cause taste preferences to remain in, or revert to, an infantile state (i.e., with limited tolerance for more complex tastes).”

In essence, by drinking artificially sweetened drinks with their intense sweetness, yet no nutritional value of any kind, we could be training our sense of taste back to a childlike state where we heavily favor sweet foods and drinks over the more complex flavors of healthier foods.

Just how long do you think it would take someone to get fat if the majority of your meals had to be simple and sweet for them to eat them?

Close-up of a person's hand opening a can of soda.

Diabetes Risk

It’s well known that people who eat and drink a lot of sugar are at a far higher risk of developing diabetes. Now a new 2013 study – ‘Diet Drinks Associated with Increased Risk of Type II Diabetes’ – has found an even greater likelihood of being diagnosed with diabetes in women who drink diet soda, than those who drink the regular sugar laden stuff.

The research followed 66,188 women over 14 years so it’s a significant sample size. The scientists found that even taking into account the already greater risk of diabetes in soda drinkers, those women who drank just half a liter of diet soda a week had a 15% higher chance of developing diabetes. That’s above and beyond the already high risk of normal soda drinkers.

And the heavier diet soda drinkers, having more than 1.5 liters a week (and we probably all know people that drink this much), had a staggering 59% greater risk than regular soda drinkers, of developing one of the worst diseases to have to live with – type II diabetes.

Soda bottles with various colored liquids in them.

Stop Drinking Soda

Diet soda provokes your appetite, making you more hungry. And due to the effect it has on your sense of taste, you’re most likely to reach for processed junk food.

Conveniently, the same multinational companies that market these ‘diet’ drinks are also the ones stocking the supermarket shelves with the high carbohydrate food you buy soon after drinking them. Brilliant business model. Not so good for your waistline and even worse if you end up with a life of insulin injections and failing health with diabetes.

Many people want to stop drinking soda, both the diet and regular sugar packed versions. Their body weight, energy levels and overall health would certainly thank them for it. But where do you start if you want to get over this addiction?

Coming up ahead is a plan to replace Coke, Pepsi and other damaging sodas with something very similar to drink that tastes good and is actually healthy

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0 thoughts on “Diet Soda and Weight Gain – The Surprising Way Artificial Sweeteners Make You Fat”

  1. Very interesting. As a heavy Diet Coke drinker it is also quite alarming. Assuming for a second that willpower was enough to overcome the hunger and basic taste desires that drinking copious amounts of Diet Coke creates, what is the risk of diabetes? And are these stats correlations or direct causations?

    • Hi Mark and thanks for your comment.

      Everyone is affected differently by substances like artificial sweeteners. The basic mechanism by which they provoke hunger is there but if your willpower is strong you might be able to resist it most of the time. Sounds like kind of a lot of work though.

      Aspartame metabolizes into some other interesting and potentially troublesome chemicals (that I’d like to write about in another article soon) but the diabetes risk seems to be due to the increased intake of sugary foods.

      The studies are correlations, although they have large samples and are over 25 and 14 years respectively. Dr Ludwig does makes the case in the link for a causal relationship between artificial sweeteners and increased desire for carbohydrate foods leading to weight gain and obesity, of which diabetes is then at a higher risk.

      We all have our vices and if you don’t have too many others you may well be fine with this one without too many problems. It does seem to be a health issue for a lot of other people though. I’d also question whether the original premise behind ‘diet’ drinks even holds any water anymore. High fructose corn syrup is nasty stuff as well but if you’re sure you are going to drink coke anyway (and I can’t really believe I’m suggesting this) you might be slightly better off with the old sugar packed stuff.

      For a much better option, I’ve got another article coming up soon on 10 steps to replace a soda addiction with something that’s fizzy and similar to drink but actually healthy. I’ll link to it from this article once it’s done.

      Hope this helps.


    • Hi Debbie,

      The research didn’t make mention of that and it would be hard to measure but it’s well known that the less processed carbohydrate foods you eat the less risk you have of developing metabolic syndrome and diabetes. If diet soda was encouraging you to eat more of these type of foods and you stopped drinking it and then cut down on your intake of junk food as a result I’d imagine your risk factors would go down significantly.

      Keep an eye out for an article I’ve got coming up soon about how eating too many carbohydrates are far more likely to cause a person to gain weight than eating fat is which explains this topic in detail.

      Hope this helps.


  2. I knew aspartame was bad but that’s fairly horrific. I also read a little while ago that they are associated with a much higher risk of depression, although I can’t remember the sources on that. I’ve seen friends kick back and finish off a full bottle over the course of a movie or two, it’s not hard. And I think if most people who drink soda sat down to work out how much they actually drink of a week they’d be shocked. Thanks for highlighting this, and looking forward to your suggested replacement.

    • Hi Kelly,

      Thanks for your comment. I know a friends who go through a lot of diet soda as well. Some of the other ingredients in cola are known to be mildly toxic but are considered at safe levels. I wonder whether still applies when people are going through a liter and a half bottle in a couple of hours. The study highlighted above saw a considerably higher risk of diabetes for people drinking a liter and a half of diet soda over not an evening but over the course of a week.

      The soda replacement plan should be finished and up soon so keep an eye on as there’s new articles coming out regularly.

  3. First off, great post Jim!

    I’m just curious, I don’t typically drink coke anymore myself however I do butt-chug a couple coke’s on occasion when I need a quick caffeine boost. Do the same negative health effects apply to consuming it rectally?

    • Hi Kevin,

      That’s a new one. Coffee colonic irrigation is popular so perhaps the caffeine and acids in cola are better off down there than going through the whole digestive tract. Doubt it’ll catch on though.

  4. Thank you again for the comments on the diet soda and weight gain issue. The 7 Steps to Replace Diet Soda with Something Healthy article is now up and linked to from the bottom of this article.


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