Drop the Diet Soda and No Bathroom Scales Get Hurt

A new study reveals diet drinks aren't as diet-y as they claim to be.

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So much for trying to cut back on calories with that diet soda — according to a September 2015 study, we're not saving a thing.

A professor at University of Illinois analyzed the drinking and eating habits of more than 22,000 American adults who kept track of everything they chewed and sipped during a 48-hour period.

Here's the skinny — or maybe not-so-skinny, in this case — diet soda drinkers tend to munch on extra foods that are packed with sugar, sodium, fat and cholesterol as a way of compensating for their low-calorie bubbly beverage.

Alcoholic drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages are associated with higher overall daily intakes, but people who drink diet beverages consume a greater percentage of non-nutritious food.
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Ruopeng An, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois, looked at the number of calories the study participants ate as well as their consumption of "discretionary foods," meaning those energy-dense, nutrient-poor items that do not fit into any of the major food groups, such as cookies and fries. (The list of discretionary foods contains 661 foods.) More than 90 percent of the study subjects snacked on something from the list each day and took in an average of 482 calories from these not-really-food foods.

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Also, just about everybody — 97 percent — drank at least one "discretionary beverage" (coffee, sugar-sweetened drinks, tea, alcohol and diet beverages) daily.

Those who opted for the lower-calorie diet beverages were more likely to consume a greater percentage of their daily intake from discretionary foods. Dr. An chalks it up to a possible "compensation effect."

"It may be that people who consume diet beverages feel justified in eating more, so they reach for a muffin or a bag of chips," he says in a press release. "Or perhaps, in order to feel satisfied, they feel compelled to eat more of these high-calorie foods."

"There is never just one simple reason why something like this is occurs," says Jackie Newgent, RDN, chef, nutritionist, and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. "I find that many people tend to be more calorie conscious rather than conscientious of overall nutritional quality."

Still Thirsty? Try a Better Beverage

Newgent suggests sticking to low- or no-calorie drinks that are 100 percent real. Her favorites include:

  • Unsweetened iced jasmine green tea with lemon
  • Fruity or floral tea without added sugar, such as Starbuck's Teavana Iced Passion Tango Tea (request it unsweetened)
  • Water with fresh mint and leftover fruit, such as mushy raspberries. "Be experimental — add a variety of citrus slices, such as lemon, lime and orange, as well as add two or three types of fresh herbs, such as mint, rosemary and sage," she suggests.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to something you already know and are probably sick of hearing: H2O is your true BBF (Best Beverage Forever).

"Having a glass a water just before you eat can help you eat a little less or potentially prevent you from overeating," Newgent says. "It assists in digestion, helping to prevent constipation. And since its key function is hydration, water will keep your organs working properly, will keep your skin looking good and so much more!"

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