THE DETAILS: Researchers looked at people’s diet soda consumption between the years 2000 and 2002, and then screened them for type 2 diabetes between 2002 and 2007, as part of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, or MESA, an investigation involving more than 6,800 people between 45 and 84 years old. People who drank at least one diet soda a day at the beginning of the study had a 67 percent higher relative risk of type 2 diabetes compared with the people who drank none. Zero-calorie soda also increased the risk of metabolic syndrome—a group of risk factors linked to obesity that increase your chances of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke—by 36 percent.
WHAT IT MEANS: Sipping diet soda to avoid calories sounds like a good idea, but in the real world it tends to come along with other behaviors that may endanger your health. This study didn’t look at the possible cause between the association of diabetes and diet soda, but the lead author has a pretty good idea why this happens. “Although our data did not clearly support this theory, I suspect that persons drinking diet soda are likely eating other foods that elevate risk of metabolic disorders,” says lead study author Jennifer Nettleton, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology at The University of Texas School of Public Health, in Houston. “People drinking diet soda are likely to miscalculate the amount of caloric savings, thus over-consuming other foods, resulting in greater overall energy consumption.”
Here’s how to avoid health problems that come in a calorie-free can:
• Water yourself! Hands down, the best thing you can drink is water. Although this study didn’t find a link between sugar-sweetened soda and diabetes as many other studies have, Nettleton says that’s not a reason for diet drinkers to go back to sugar-swamped beverages. Water should be your drink of choice. Beyond that, check the Beverage Guidance Panel’s tiered system to help you make the healthiest choices.
• Look at the whole picture. If diabetes is a real threat to you, chances are your entire problem isn’t coming from a soda can or bottle, but rather a slew of factors. To keep your blood sugar steady, eat a balanced diet with as little refined sugar as possible (replace processed foods with whole, organic vegetables and fruits), cut out soda and sweetened juices containing little real fruit juice, and get more active, even if that means walking in 10-minute spurts several times a day. Make lots of small changes you can stick to, rather than a single dramatic one. “Lifestyle changes must be moderate and sustainable, and focus on all aspects of diet—not just single food and beverage entities—and include physical activity and stress management,” says Nettleton. “Too many marketing gimmicks exist that suggest there is a single ‘panacea’ to prevent obesity and its related morbidities. This simply isn’t the case.”