The bottom line: Diet soda consumption is linked to some pretty serious health problems.
Which begs the question: Is diet soda bad for you?
Turns out, there's not a huge consensus on the topic. For some experts, diet soda is just not worth it. "Just get rid of it," Keri Glassman, R.D.N., advises. "It is filled with unhealthy chemicals, including artificial sweeteners, which actually make you crave more calories later." Glassman notes that diet drinks are linked to weight gain, increased blood pressure, and diabetes.
But Cara Harbstreet, R.D., of Street Smart Nutrition thinks the issue is a bit more nuanced. She points out that a lot of the research is self-reported by participants, so it may not be completely accurate. Plus, she says that observational studies can't establish a distinct "cause and effect" relationship. "Consumers of diet soda who engage in other lifestyle behaviors associated with poor health outcomes are at a greater risk than those who balance their intake of diet soda with other healthful habits," she says. Variables at play, she says, include being sedentary versus being active, tobacco and alcohol use, and more. "The variables make it difficult to pinpoint whether diet soda consumption alone is the cause of negative health outcomes, or whether it’s the culmination of a number of factors," she says. "I lean towards the latter, since nothing in nutrition or health exists in a vacuum."
Harbstreet says that many of her clients struggle to give up carbonated beverages entirely, because who doesn't love bubbles? "Choosing to drink (or eat) any one specific item is always a deeply personal choice," Harbstreet says. "So I pose the question, which is the lesser of two evils? You always have a choice and in this case it comes down to whether you’d rather have a small amount of artificial sweetener in your drink or a high amount of refined and added sugar." For those looking to cut down, she recommends taking a few steps like switching to seltzer or no longer keeping soda in the house, but ordering it at a restaurant or bar.
Harbstreet also encourages her clients to look at the bigger picture, and keep everything they consume in context. "A single ingredient or food doesn’t have the ability to completely derail an otherwise balanced and nourishing way of eating," she says. "So if they want to indulge from time to time, I support that. After all, I do that myself!"
The bottom line: Diet soda consumption is linked to some pretty serious health problems. But if it's your go-to indulgence, it's not the end of the world—especially if you're otherwise engaged in healthy lifestyle choices.