Okay, okay, we already knew that the habitual afternoon diet drink wasn’t doing us any favors. Packed with chemicals like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, diet soda pumps your body full of artificial chemicals. A recent study from the University of Iowa even found that aspartame (the amount you’d get in two diet sodas a day) dramatically ups the risk of heart disease in women.
But since the low-cal version subs in these artificial sweeteners for real sugar, diet is at least the better option for your waistline right? Wrong. Despite zero calories, diet drinks may actualy encourage you to consume more calories than you otherwise would, according to a new study. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that diet drinkers overcompensate for the lack of calories in their beverage by noshing on extra food throughout the day, often dishes that are loaded with extra sugar, sodium, fat, and cholesterol. (Eek! Swap for these 15 Smart, Healthy Alternatives to Junk Food.)
Researchers looked at a 10 year span of diet data from over 22,000 participants and found there were five groups of drinkers: Those who drank diet or sugar-free beverages, those who drank sugar-sweetened drinks, and those who drank coffee, tea, or alcohol. Researchers then looked at what else the participants in each group ate that day. They found that diet-drinkers consumed an average of 69 more calories a day thanks to discretionary food items—things which are high in calories but low in nutritional value and completely unnecessary to our diet (think ice cream or fries). (What is necessary? These 20 Healthy Foods That Give You Every Nutrient You Need.)
Sixty-nine calories a day may not seem like a ton, but that slow creep will add up to an extra seven pounds a year—yikes! These findings back up a study released earlier this year from the University of Texas. In fact, researchers found that diet soda drinkers were 70 percent more likely to have a larger waist circumference over 10 years. Drink two a day and that number skyrocketed to a whopping 500 percent—double yikes!
The exact mechanism behind why drinking diet soda leads us to overeat hasn’t been determined yet, but researchers speculate that it has a lot to do with our perception: Drinking diet feels like a healthier choice which keeps us from feeling guilty if we reach for the fries instead of the crudites later in the day.
Want to ditch the diet but keep the flavor? Reach for one of these 10 Sparkling Drinks Superior to Diet Soda instead.