• Alex Bovell

Are Diet/Sugar-Free Drinks Healthy?

Updated: Apr 3, 2019

Diet/Sugar-free drinks may seem like you’ve found the way to have your cake and eat it too… however, unfortunately these may be the reason you’re struggling to lose those extra few kgs. Research has in fact linked the consumption of artificially sweetened drinks to weight gain and obesity [1, 2, 3].

In the past I’ve consumed way too much Pepsi max, sometimes 2-3 cans daily! I’d also abuse the sugar-free cordials that left that gritty feeling on my teeth. Now I think about it, I can’t believe this was what I was doing on a regular basis, it was such a disgusting habit. Yet, all I knew was that “sugar was bad” and so in my mind sugar-free meant healthy.

These choices may seem appealing because you can save yourself over 100 calories and still satisfy your sweet tooth when the afternoon slump hits you. However, when asking yourself are Diet/Sugar-free drinks healthy, the answer’s no!

Increased Sugar Cravings

Diet/sugar-free drinks contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, stevia, saccharin and sucralose which confuse the body! These sweeteners have a more intense sweetness flavour than real sugar, which means when you consume these over a long period of time your body doesn’t find natural sugar as appealing anymore. As a result, to enjoy the sweetness found in these drinks it’s likely you’ll desire a higher amount of refined sugar products such as lollies and chocolate compared to natural sugars. Which we all know by now doesn’t lead to a healthy body when consumed excessively.

Additionally, when you consume sweet products it increases your desire to choose calorie-packed junk food throughout the rest of the day. These artificial sweeteners still trigger sweet receptors in the brain which makes you crave sweet food! Think about when you start the day with a sugar packed breakfast, the rest of the day you’re left wanting those sugary foods and reaching for the biscuits. I know once I start, it’s extremely hard to stop!

Elevated Insulin Levels

There’s a lot of controversy around artificial sweeteners and their effect on insulin levels. Insulin is like a key that lets blood sugar (glucose) leave the bloodstream and enter cells where it can be used as energy or stored as fat. However, excess insulin release, which occurs when there’s constantly too much sugar in the bloodstream, is a stepping stone that can lead to insulin resistance, obesity and Type-2 Diabetes Mellitus.

Drinking just 1 diet cool drink daily is linked to a 36% increased risk of metabolic syndrome (hypertension, high blood sugar levels, high cholesterol & large waist circumference) which elevates the risk of heart disease, stroke and Type-2 Diabetes Mellitus.

There are studies that suggest artificial sweeteners still cause the same effect as natural sugar which means it triggers insulin and sends the body into ‘fat storage’ mode causing weight gain. This may be the reason Diet/Sugar-free drinks are associated with weight gain, not weight loss!

Psychological Effects

Along with the body craving sweeter foods and possibly sending the body into ‘fat storage mode’, a psychological component comes into play when consuming these drinks. If you’re drinking ‘diet/sugar-free drinks’ it seems so much easier to justify having 3-4 cookies or the large side of chips with your meal because you feel you’re ‘saving calories’. Therefore, it’s common to overeat when you choose these drinks.

Messes with Fullness and Satiety Cues

Consuming artificial sweeteners for a long period of time can cause an elevation of leptin (the hormone that promotes fullness & satiety and signals our brain that we’ve eaten enough). This can lead to leptin resistance and once this occurs the body doesn’t respond to the hormonal cues and as a result you’ll probably want more food.

The Bottom Line

You need to be aware and reduce the overall intake of sweetened drinks, whether they have calories or not! Artificially sweetened drinks will still have negative side effects and often cause the opposite of their intention, weight gain. I know for myself, it was when I started reducing my overall refined sugar intake, that I could eliminate these types of drinks and enjoy natural sweetness again.