Diet Soda Adds Inches to the Waist of Seniors, Researchers Say

Story at-a-glance

  • Seniors aged 65 and over who drink diet soda tend to carry more weight around their midriffs; compared to those who never drank diet soda, daily diet soda drinkers nearly quadrupled their waist size over nine years
  • In earlier research, people who drank diet soda had a 70 percent greater increase in waist size in a 10-year period compared to non-diet soda drinkers
  • Obesity raises a woman’s risk for a number of different cancers by about 40 percent, and gaining too much weight during pregnancy may increase your child’s risk of becoming obese by age seven


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Recent research again confirms what many previous studies have concluded: diet soda tends to promote weight gain rather than prevent it. In this study1,2,3,4,5,6 diet soda consumption was linked to increased belly fat in Americans over the age of 65.

Abdominal fat (visceral fat) is associated with an increased risk for diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, just to name a few, and your waist-to-hip ratio is one potent indicator for your level of risk for these and other chronic health problems.

Diet Soda Increases Hazardous Belly Fat in Aging Adults

Seniors aged 65 and over were followed for an average of nine years, and while the study was an observational one and hence cannot prove causation, the authors note that there was a "striking dose-response relationship" between diet soda consumption and waist circumference.

This held true even when other factors such as exercise, diabetes, and smoking were taken into account:

  • People who never drank diet soda increased their waist circumference by an average of 0.8 inches during the nine-year observation period
  • Occasional diet soda drinkers added an average of 1.83 inches to their waistline in that time period
  • Daily diet soda drinkers gained an average of nearly 3.2 inches—quadruple that of those who abstained from diet soda altogether

What's worse, abdominal fat gain was most pronounced in those who were overweight to begin with. According to senior author Dr. Helen Hazuda:7

"People who are already at cardiometabolic risk because they have higher BMIs are really in double or triple jeopardy. When they think they're doing something good by drinking artificially sweetened beverages, it's actually totally counterproductive." [Emphasis mine]

This isn't the first time diet soda has been linked to expanding waistlines. One 2011 study, in which soda drinkers were followed for nearly 10 years, found that those who drank diet soda had a 70 percent greater increase in waist size compared to non-diet soda drinkers.

Those who drank two or more diet sodas a day had a 500 percent greater increase in waist size. According to earlier research, drinking just one diet soda a day may raise your risk of obesity by 65 percent. Diet soda consumption has also been linked to a 50 percent increased risk for stroke.

Obesity Raises Women's Risk of Cancer by 40 Percent

Obesity is associated with one in five deaths in the US and, as noted by the authors, for older individuals who are already at an increased risk for metabolic disorders, increased visceral fat will exacerbate that risk. Recent research8 also warns that obesity raises a woman's risk for a number of different cancers by about 40 percent.

As reported by WebMD:9

"Overall, the Cancer Research UK study found that obese women have about a one in four risk of developing a weight-related cancer in their lifetime. Those include cancers of the bowel, gallbladder, uterus, kidney, pancreas and esophagus, as well as post-menopausal breast cancers...

There are a number of possible ways that obesity can increase cancer risk in women, including one that's linked to fat cells' production of hormones, especially estrogen, which is believed to fuel cancer development... However, everyone can lower their risk by trimming their waistline, one expert said."

Losing Weight Can Eliminate Irregular Heartbeat if You're Obese

Recent research10,11 also suggests that obese people suffering from atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat, may restore healthy heart rhythm simply by losing weight. In the US, this condition is quite common, affecting an estimated 5.6 million adults.

In this study, patients who shed at least 10 percent of their weight over the course of four years were six times more likely to become symptom-free without any additional drug or surgical intervention, compared to those who did not lose weight.

In total, 45 percent of those who lost 10 percent or more of their body weight became symptom-free without treatment. Thirteen percent of those who lost a more modest three percent of their body weight became symptom-free. According to the authors:12

"Long-term sustained weight-loss is associated with significant reduction of atrial fibrillation (AF) burden and maintenance of sinus rhythm. Weight-loss and avoidance of weight-fluctuation constitute important strategies for reducing the rising burden of AF."

How Obesity Impacts Your Offspring

Researchers also warn that if you are overweight prior to becoming pregnant, or gain an excessive amount of weight during your pregnancy, your child is more likely to be obese at age seven.

This in turn can predispose your child to health problems in adulthood, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer.

This study13 focused primarily on African-American and Dominican mothers, living in low-income neighborhoods in New York City. Lead author Elizabeth Widen told Reuters:14

"Because there is limited evidence of the long-term effects of pregnancy weight gain on childhood health outcomes in low-income urban populations, we sought to evaluate how pregnancy weight gain was related to childhood body size and obesity."

Among mothers who gained greater amounts of weight during pregnancy, their children were nearly three times more likely to be obese at the age of seven, compared to other children. So how much weight gain during pregnancy is too much? The US Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends the following:

  • If you're of normal weight prior to pregnancy, you should gain 25-35 pounds during pregnancy
  • If you're overweight, you should gain 15-25 lbs
  • Obese women are advised to limit their pregnancy weight gain to 11-20 lbs

Artificial Sweeteners Is Not the Answer if You're Seeking to Lose Weight

Considering the many health risks associated with obesity, the issue of whether artificially sweetened foods and beverages is a weight loss aid or hindrance is an important consideration. Many have fallen for industry claims suggesting that no- or low-calorie "diet" foods will help you lose weight and allow diabetics to indulge in the sweeter side of life without harmful effects, but studies have repeatedly blown massive holes in these claims. Research over the last 30 years—including several large scale prospective cohort studies—have shown that artificial sweeteners actually stimulate appetite and increase cravings for carbs.

They also produce a variety of metabolic dysfunctions that promote fat storage and weight gain,15,16 and many studies have directly associated artificial sweeteners with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Some studies have even shown that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame actually worsen insulin sensitivity to a greater degree than sugar. Other mechanisms of harm have also been revealed. In recent years, we've learned that gut microbes play a significant role in human health. Certain gut microbes have been linked to obesity, for example, and recent research17,18,19,20 shows that artificial sweeteners raise your risk of obesity and diabetes by disrupting your intestinal microflora.  

Most importantly, this research actually shows causation. Specifically, they found that artificial sweeteners cause decreased function in pathways associated with the transport of sugar in your body. Artificial sweeteners were also found to induce gut dysbiosis and glucose intolerance in otherwise healthy people. Glucose intolerance is a well-known precursor to type 2 diabetes, but it also plays a role in obesity, because the excess sugar in your blood ends up being stored in your fat cells. According to the authors of this widely publicized study:21

"[W]e demonstrate that consumption of commonly used non-caloric artificial sweeteners formulations drives the development of glucose intolerance through induction of compositional and functional alterations to the intestinal microbiota... Collectively, our results link non-caloric artificial sweeteners (NAS) consumption, dysbiosis and metabolic abnormalities, thereby calling for a reassessment of massive NAS usage."

Many Studies Refute 'Diet' Claims of Artificial Sweeteners

Below is sampling of some of the studies published through the years, clearly refuting the beverage industry's claims that diet soda aids weight loss. The 2010 review in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine22 is particularly noteworthy. It provides a historical summary of artificial sweeteners in general, along with epidemiological and experimental evidence showing that artificial sweeteners tends to promote weight gain. It also illustrates that as usage of artificial sweeteners has risen, so has obesity rates.

Obesity Rates

Source: Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine June 8 2010: v83(2)

Preventive Medicine, 198623 This study examined nearly 78,700 women aged 50-69 for one year. Artificial sweetener usage increased with relative weight, and users were significantly more likely to gain weight, compared to those who did not use artificial sweeteners—regardless of their initial weight.

According to the researchers, the results "were not explicable by differences in food consumption patterns. The data do not support the hypothesis that long-term artificial sweetener use either helps weight loss or prevents weight gain."
Physiology and Behavior, 198824 In this study, they determined that intense (no- or low-calorie) sweeteners can produce significant changes in appetite. Of the three sweeteners tested, aspartame produced the most pronounced effects.
Physiology and Behavior, 199025 Here, they found that aspartame had a time-dependent effect on appetite, "producing a transient decrease followed by a sustained increase in hunger ratings."
Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 199126 In a study of artificial sweeteners performed on college students, there was no evidence that artificial sweetener use was associated with a decrease in their overall sugar intake either.
International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 200327 This study, which looked at 3,111 children, found that diet soda, specifically, was associated with higher BMI.
International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders, 200428 This Purdue University study found that rats fed artificially sweetened liquids ate more high-calorie food than rats fed high-caloric sweetened liquids. The researchers believe the experience of drinking artificially sweetened liquids disrupted the animals' natural ability to compensate for the calories in the food.
San Antonio Heart Study, 200529 Data gathered from the 25-year long San Antonio Heart Study also showed that drinking diet soft drinks increased the likelihood of serious weight gain – far more so than regular soda.30 On average, for each diet soft drink the 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.
Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 200531 In this two-year long study, which involved 166 school children, increased diet soda consumption was associated with higher BMI at the end of the trial.
The Journal of Pediatrics, 200632 The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study included 2,371 girls aged 9-19 for 10 years. Soda consumption in general, both regular and diet, was associated with increase in total daily energy intake.
Journal of Biology and Medicine, 201033 This study delves into the neurobiology of sugar cravings and summarizes the epidemiological and experimental evidence concerning the effect of artificial sweeteners on weight.

According to the authors: "[F]indings suggest that the calorie contained in natural sweeteners may trigger a response to keep the overall energy consumption constant. ...Increasing evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners do not activate the food reward pathways in the same fashion as natural sweeteners… [A]rtificial sweeteners, precisely because they are sweet, encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence."
Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 201034 This review offers a summary of epidemiological and experimental evidence concerning the effects of artificial sweeteners on weight, and explains those effects in light of the neurobiology of food reward.  It also shows the correlation between increased usage of artificial sweeteners in food and drinks, and the corresponding rise in obesity. More than 11,650 children aged 9-14 were included in this study. Each daily serving of diet beverage was associated with a BMI increase of 0.16 kg/m2
Appetite, 201235 Here, researchers showed that saccharin and aspartame both cause greater weight gain than sugar, even when the total caloric intake remains similar.
Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, 201336 This report highlights the fact that diet soda drinkers suffer the same exact health problems as those who opt for regular soda, such as excessive weight gain, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke.37,38 The researchers speculate that frequent consumption of artificial sweeteners may induce metabolic derangements.
Nature, 201439 This study was able to clearly show causality, revealing there's a direct cause and effect relationship between consuming artificial sweeteners and developing elevated blood sugar levels.

People who consumed high amounts of artificial sweeteners were found to have higher levels of HbA1C—a long-term measure of blood sugar—compared to non-users or occasional users of artificial sweeteners.

Seven volunteers who did not use artificial sweeteners were then recruited, and asked to consume the equivalent of 10-12 single-dose packets of artificial sweeteners daily for one week.

Four of the seven people developed "significant disturbances in their blood glucose," according to the researchers. Some became pre-diabetic within just a few days. The reason for this dramatic shift was traced back to alterations in gut bacteria. Some bacteria were killed off, while others started proliferating.
PLoS One, 201440 This study, which was done on rats, using aspartame, also found an increased risk of glucose intolerance. Animals that consume artificial sweeteners ended up with raised levels of propionate—short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) involved in sugar production. Consumption of artificial sweeteners shifted gut microbiota to produce propionate, which generated higher blood sugar levels. 

Reclaim Your Health by Ditching Artificially Sweetened 'Diet' Foods

The evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners have likely played a role in actually worsening the obesity and diabetes epidemics since their emergence in our food supply. And considering their many routes of harm, including disrupting your gut flora, I strongly recommend avoiding artificial sweeteners, and to read food labels to make sure you're not inadvertently consuming them. They're added to some 6,000 different beverages, snacks, and food products, so there's no telling where they might be hiding.

In addition to boosting weight gain and insulin resistance, artificial sweeteners can also be addictive. Your brain actually craves more of it because your body receives no satisfaction on a cellular level since no calories accompany the sweet flavor. If you have trouble quitting diet soda or other artificially sweetened products, I suggest trying Turbo Tapping. This is a version of the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) that is specifically geared toward combating sugar cravings. For instructions, please see the article, "Turbo Tapping: How to Get Rid of Your Soda Addiction." The video below with EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman also demonstrates how to use EFT to fight food cravings of all kinds.

If you still have cravings after trying EFT or Turbo Tapping, you may need to make further changes to your diet. My free nutrition plan can help you do this in a step-by-step fashion. As for safer sweetener options, you could use stevia or Luo Han, both of which are safe natural sweeteners. However, if you struggle with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or extra weight, then you have insulin sensitivity issues and would likely benefit from avoiding ALL sweeteners until your condition has normalized.

+ Sources and References

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