- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Diet soda could ruin your diet.

Two studies presented at an American Diabetes Association meeting over the weekend show, according to researchers, chilling correlations between drinking diet soft drinks and weight gain and other major health problems.

A team from the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center tracked 474 people, ranging in age from 65 to 74, for nearly a decade and found that the waistlines of diet soda drinkers expanded 70 percent more than those who avoided the fizzy favorites. The waists of those who drank more than two diet sodas a day expanded by a belt-busting 4.7 centimeters, that report says.

That weight gain could lead to more serious problems such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, according to the report.

“The promotion of diet sodas as healthy alternatives may be ill-advised. They may be free of calories, but not of consequences,” the researchers wrote.

Soda supporters say the reports fall flat because people with weight problems may be consuming more diet soda, rather than the other way around.

“The most likely explanation for the findings of [the report] on weight gain may be that individuals seeking to lose weight often switch to low-calorie sweeteners in order to reduce their calorie intake,” the American Beverage Association said in a statement.

While the first report looked at senior citizens, the second study, which was written by some of the same authors, examined mice. Twenty mice were fed a regular diet, while another 20 were served food laced with aspartame, the artificial sweetener most commonly found in diet soda. The dosed mice ended up with much higher blood sugar levels.

If the study’s findings translate to humans, they could be especially alarming for people like Ibrahim Bakhit, an IBM employee from Alexandria who said he switched to diet soda because his family has a history of diabetes.

“I drink water, but every once in a while I need a soda,” he said Wednesday afternoon, sipping a diet soft drink after a day of work at his D.C. office. “I got used to [diet sodas]. I can’t drink regular soda now.”

Many others seem to agree: Diet soda sales continue to bubble higher.

Ten years ago, diet soft drinks made up 25 percent of the $74 billion-a-year soda industry’s sales. Now, they account for 30 percent of the 9.4 billion cases sold each year in the U.S., according to John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest.

One-third of Coca-Cola’s North American sales are low- or no-calorie drinks, company spokeswoman Kirsten Witt told The Washington Times. Coca-Cola Zero, a zero-calorie drink advertised as tasting just like regular Coca-Cola, is leading the way, with sales increasing by more than 10 percent each quarter for the past five years, Ms. Witt said.

Coca-Cola Zero and other diet drinks serve a useful purpose for those trying to lose weight, said Lisa Katic, a registered dietitian who consults with the food and beverage industry and is skeptical of the reports’ findings.

“I absolutely believe in small steps. If you’re trying to overhaul someone’s entire diet [immediately] … it doesn’t work,” she said. “You’re not going to start by running a marathon. You walk around the block first.”

Ms. Katic advises overweight patients to replace one of their daily sodas with the diet version. A relatively small calorie reduction each day over time, she said, goes a long way.

Although the reports were presented at ADA’s annual Scientific Sessions meeting, some say they haven’t been properly peer-reviewed.

“The study findings are illogical,” the Calorie Control Council, a nonprofit association representing manufacturers and suppliers of low-calorie foods and drinks, said in a statement. “It is physiologically impossible for foods and beverages without calories to cause weight gain.”

The council argues that the study didn’t account for “other dietary factors and lifestyle habits” among the 474 people studied.

Two of the reports’ authors, Sharon Fowler and Helen Hazuda, did not respond to emails Wednesday from The Times.

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