Better than Water? That’s Doubtful.

Study about health benefits of diet soda funded by industry leaders

We are bombarded by the words “healthy” and “diet” on a good portion of our food and drink labels. As we push through the grocery aisles, we can’t help but notice those labels and put a few items containing them into our cart. After all, we want to be healthy.

But marketing claims hardly match reality 100 percent of the time. The “buyer beware” motto has become more important than ever, and one of the latest industries that may be misleading health-conscious Americans or at least influencing them is the diet soda industry.

Newly released information shows Coca Cola and PepsiCo are among the backers of a recent study out of the United Kingdom’s Bristol University. Researchers concluded that diet soda drinkers are more likely to shed pounds than their water drinking counterparts.

The study appeared in the November issue of the International Journal of Obesity. Bristol University blames “reasons of space” for not disclosing that the two were among those helping to fund their scientists.

The only information cited was this: “This work was conducted by an expert group of the European branch of the International Life Science Institute (ILSI Europe). The expert group received funding from the ILSI Europe Eating Behaviour and Energy Balance Task Force. Industry members of this task force are listed on the ILSI Europe website at”, a global news site, wrote, “While over 5,500 papers were reviewed for the study, the results were drawn from only three of them. Two papers didn’t discover any difference between water and diet drinks, and another paper — sponsored by the American Beverage Association (ABA) — came to the conclusion that people consuming diet drinks were more likely to lose weight than those who prefer water.”

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Tracey A. Halliday, vice president of communications at the ABA, offered this statement to LifeZette: “The American Beverage Association does fund scientific research through grants.”

She defended the publication, and suggested LifeZette speak directly to the authors of the study about why they think those who consumed diet drinks lost more weight than those who drank water only.

John Peters at the University of Colorado, Halliday said, was the lead author on both papers.

Peters’ research regarding weight loss and diet soda was published in Obesity in May 2014. His study concluded that those consuming non-nutritive sweetened beverages during a 12-week study lost significantly more weight than the water group and that weight loss efforts may be slightly enhanced by drinking artificially sweetened beverages.

She added, “Barry Popkin at the University of North Carolina published a paper — which ABA did not support — in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which had similar conclusions. Additionally, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines just released by the federal government supported the efficacy of low- and no-calorie beverages in weight loss, as well as the safety of those ingredients.”

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Regardless of what these studies find or who might back them, nutrition experts appear to disagree. That’s true especially when it comes to no-cal and low-cal products for weight loss tactics.

“I think they’re awful,” said Felicia Stoler, a New York-based nutritionist. “I’m not usually against anything, but artificial sweeteners I am very against.”

Aspartame, saccharin and sucrose are all found in many of the foods we eat that are dubbed “healthy” or “diet” because they don’t include real sugar. But Stoler recommends they be eliminated from our diets entirely.

“Many studies on diet foods focus on energy balance,” said Stoler, referring to the swapping of food and beverage items based on high or low amounts of calories, versus nutrition elements. While it is about calories, she said that when we ingest non-nutritive sweeteners, we end up compensating by eating many more calories, which doesn’t promote net weight loss.

Chrissy Arsenault, a registered dietitian with Verve Health based in Indianapolis, agreed the studies aren’t convincing that “diet” food and drinks are conducive to weight loss.

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“It is true that diet drinks can save you calories,” Arsenault told LifeZette. Avid regular soda drinkers who consume five cans a day, she pointed out, take in about 700 calories. “The fact that diet sodas have zero calories instead of 140 would help in total calories consumed.”

But she quickly condemned diet sodas because of the artificial sweeteners.

“A lot of artificial sweeteners trigger insulin in your body, which signals your body to store fat,” Arsenault said. “Over time, these artificial sweeteners will be doing the opposite of weight loss — storing fat. You could assume because you’re saving calories, you’re doing your body a favor, but you’re really not.”

Stoler cited studies that she believes are well done: They point to artificial sweeteners possibly causing health problems like Hashimoto’s disease, a condition in which the immune system attacks your thyroid. The thyroid gland produces hormones that coordinate many of the body’s activities.

Stoler advocates for real sugar, if any.

“If you’re going to have a soda, have a regular soda,” Stoler said, who adds that this goes for other foods that tend to come with the word “diet” attached. “If you want ice cream, have the real stuff.”

Bottom line, according to nutritionists: If you cannot pronounce the ingredients on the label — such as some artificial sweeteners — don’t ingest them, no matter what any study finds. Drinking good water sounds like a pretty easy and healthy alternative.

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