Monday, July 20th, 2009...6:23 AM

Diet Soda Dreams

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A fan of the Libra Fitness Facebook page recently asked, “What is your take on aspartame? Do you think it is as harmful as they say? I am trying to cut it out if my diet but it is hard!” Good question.

On the one hand, aspartame is one of the most heavily researched chemicals ever. It has been declared safe (more than once) by the FDA. It was one of the first food additives approved by the FDA after Searle & others got into big trouble (i.e., falsifying research data, poor treatment of lab animals, etc.), and the Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) regulations had to be implemented back in the 1970s. (I know a little something about this. I have worked for years in quality assurance implementing GLP). Aspartame has also been on the market for over twenty-five years.

On the other hand, aspartame is a synthetic chemical, not found in nature. I have read many articles proclaiming the dangers of aspartame, but to be fair, not a lot of that is peer-reviewed, clinical research. So, this is an area where each individual person has to make some decisions based on all of the information available, their own experience, and what their bodies are telling them. The most compelling arguments, to me, raise concerns about how artificial sweeteners might “trick” the body’s natural insulin response by making your body think calories are coming (you just ate “sugar,” right?), but then no calories come. The claim is that this can lead to an increase in insulin production and food cravings. Another argument proposes that phenylalanine (a chemical in aspartame) can disrupt serotonin production and lead to cravings for sugary foods from which our bodies can create more serotonin. The bottom line is that we take a risk when we choose to put anything unnatural in our bodies. We have seen time and time again what happens to the human body when we mess with our food. Look at what processed foods, HFCS, and trans fats have done to the health of the average American.

Personally, I have found giving up diet soda to be nearly impossible. Switching to caffeine-free doesn’t seem to make it any easier . It makes me wonder if it’s the aspartame or just the habit that makes it so difficult. However, in the end, the sheer fact that it is so difficult worries me. So, I don’t buy two cases of diet soda every week any more, but I still crave a diet drink every day or two, and I HAVE to get my fix at the local convenience store. I figure one every couple of days is better than three or four per day, and I let it go. Everything in moderation? I hope that is good enough.

About the Author:

Chris Heidel is the owner and primary personal trainer with Libra Fitness in Austin, TX, a private, in-home studio. Chris focuses her business on developing mentoring relationships with her clients built on trust and meaningful support to help them set, achieve, and maintain realistic fitness goals. Chris truly believes that while getting in shape isn’t easy, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Chris is certified through the American Council on Exercise.



  • So Catherine (my girlfriend) and I have been extremely motivating to each other in the health area. First we gave up caffeine, which in my case meant giving up regular (non-diet) coke, which is full of HFCS. That, in combination with a much healthier diet including a lot more raw vegetables thanks to Cat and I cooking together, has caused me to very easily drop 15 pounds. (Actually, let me check really quickly…OK, so 14, had a really big birthday dinner for a friend last night.)

    Next we quit aspartame for some of the reasons you mentioned above and also because it just seems to give both of us headaches. I really like the results. Overall I just feel much better. What we drink at home now is several varieties of 100% fruit juice (I like pomegranate and blueberry together) mixed with about an equal part of club soda. Tastes great, you get the soda fizz, and it’s very healthy. Some sugar, yeah, but it’s the natural kind.

  • I figure this is one of those things where different people react differently, and you have to listen to your body. If diet soda is giving you intense sugar cravings or wild blood sugar swings, that’s not good. But I don’t think everyone has that response.

    I’ve never had anything like that, and at 8 months pregnant, I am especially prone to blood sugar swings, so I think I would have noticed. (Ask Colin about the time I had Sugar Flakes for breakfast, raved like a lunatic, and then crashed on the dog bed to have something more like a “coma” than a “nap”.) Diet Coke doesn’t provoke anything similar, thank God.

  • Thanks for summarizing this issue… I’ve also had a really hard time giving up diet sodas, and there is so much information/misinformation floating around out there it’s hard to navigate.

  • Ryan-good idea with the fruit juice and club soda.
    Vanessa-If you can do without it, it might not be an issue for you. That’s a good thing because I have been craving a diet soda now for three hours since writing this post!
    Pam-I’m with you.

  • For me, soft drink consumption was more about the fizz and the activity than about the sweet. I’ve never been able to develop a taste for aspartame or other artificial sweeteners in drinks, but I replaced sugared soft drinks with club soda and/or La Croix (unsweetened flavored carbonated water) a bunch of years ago, and it’s really nice! I still sometimes indulge in an HFCS soft drink, but it’s on a less-than-monthly basis. A nice by-product is that my older daughter loves unsweetened sparkling water, and never asks for sugary drinks.

  • I really believe that aspartame contributed to migraine headaches that I had during puberty. Once I cut out soft drinks after being diagnosed with migraines, I only had one or two and then none once I reached my 20′s (so I think hormone changes were another contributing factor).

  • What concerns me most of sythetic sugars is its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB). We effortlessly allow these types of compounds through approval to our table, but we really don’t have sound clinical experiments and results that support it’s safety at the neurological level. If there were any done, they were “short term” studies and this doesn’t lead to comfortable end result of this product.

    We don’t allow our kids to drink anything with synthetic sugar, but sadly, we still do…mainly Splenda. There are more natural products coming out through the pipeline which is promising. I would like to see the current ones become obsolete sooner than later.

  • I really worry about the effects aspartame has on my 12 year-old type 1 diabetic daughter. I’m trying to limit her consumption of Diet Coke to the weekends, and that’s for the caffeine as well.

    It’s the ‘tricking the body’ part that unnerves me most.

  • Soda pop (diet and regular both) will probably end up being the cigarettes of this century. Meaning that you probably shouldn’t have any of it, but if you can’t say no, make it infrequent, and in small doses. The colas have been found to limit expected bone density increases in teenage women. Public health wise, that’s scary shit! No studies have been done on men or adult women to the best of my knowledge.

  • Glad to see that you have all really thought about this. Thanks so much for all of your comments! I just look at it, and common sense tells me that while it might be “safe,” it’s not “good” for me.

  • I’ve been a diet soda junkie for my entire adult life. (I started drinking Tab in junior high.) My mother’s criticized my habit for years, until I finally pointed out that I was a college graduate with a steady job, I wasn’t addicted to crack or heroin or booze or cigarettes… yes, diet sodas are a vice, I admitted, but compared to other vices they’re not that bad. (now my mom has a 6-pack of Diet Coke chilling for me whenever I come home to visit.) ;-)
    On the other hand, the bone density issue is a concern of mine as well, Lynn. The stuff I’ve read was about teenage girls (many trying to cut calories) trading milk for diet sodas. Missing out on that calcium you need as a growing teenager can lead to osteoporosis later in life. I’ve already thought about when Clara hits her teens, if she tries to reject her milk in favor of a diet soda, I’ll be sure to show her a picture of someone with osteoporosis who is so bent she has a hump, and ask her, “You want to be beautiful, healthy and strong? Put down the diet soda and drink your milk!”

  • Great article Chris! Thanks! As I posted on your wall, I am going to go cold turkey on the aspartame and see how I feel. I’ll let you know!

  • Catherine Meiners
    July 28th, 2009 at 7:35 PM

    I’m off the diet sodas for a couple of months now. I don’t really crave them anymore although I do still want something aside from water to drink. The juice and sparkling water trick that Ryan mentioned works well. Perrier is also nice. Not as much flavor as the other but no calories and the bonus of bubbles.

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