This article is part of our series exploring the “modern myths of aging.” Read part 1 | Read part 2
Soft drinks are known by different names in different parts of the country: soda, cola, pop, and the generic “coke,” are the most common. But most people don’t call these fizzy flavored beverages healthy.
Diet soda has been marketed as an alternative free of sugar and calories – and the guilt and health risks that come with them. It’s often targeted at people who are health-conscious, athletes, and for those who have diabetes, or want to lose weight. It’s a huge global industry, worth $4.1 billion in 2018, with North Americans dominating the market.
But is diet soda really harmless?
The research on diet soda isn’t sugar coated. One small study found that people who switched to diet soda instead of sweetened beverages like juices, sweetened coffee or sports drinks, increased their success in achieving 5% weight loss. Although, there were no major differences in weight loss compared with those who switched to water.
On the other hand, two large studies found people who drank regular or diet soda had higher risks of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which includes health conditions like high blood pressure, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol. Additional studies also have linked diet soda to increased cardiovascular risks and vascular events, including stroke.
Additionally, some diet sodas contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener that while considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Association, has been suspected of causing health concerns, including cancer. When aspartame is metabolized in the body, it breaks down into methanol and then formaldehyde, a substance known to cause cancer.
That’s not the only nasty ingredient. Some regular and diet sodas contain phosphoric acid, which is also used to make agricultural fertilizers and detergent, as well as potassium benzoate, a preservative, and natural flavor, which includes any number of unknown substances.
Short and sweet? If you want to stay hydrated, drink water. Experts suggest drinking regular tea or coffee to satisfy a desire for caffeine, or switching to plain seltzer or carbonated water to get that fuzzy feeling you get from soda.
Remember not all sugar is created equal. Experts recommend limiting refined sugar, as found in many regular sodas. And to satisfy a sweet tooth, stick with items that contain natural sugar, as found in fruits or vegetables, rather than turn to items with artificial sweeteners.
Balanced diet and lifestyle choices are important for healthy aging. For example, a diet soda won’t counteract a burger at a fast food restaurant. While there’s no absolute answers to this and other “modern myths of aging,” evidence and knowledge can help you ask better questions and make better decisions for your health and wellbeing.
Watch Institute for Health Director Dr. XinQi Dong’s mini lecture on the Modern Myths of Aging for the Rutgers University Alumni Foundation: