For a lot of people, the most difficult part of a diet is the beginning.…
Disclaimer: I am not a qualified nutritionist, therefore consult a professional before implementing any advice. This is intended to provide an unbiased and realistic view on diet drinks and their impact upon health and fitness in general. I am not advising for or against any other risk factors (detailed further below).
A question I’ve been receiving a lot recently is some variation of:
“Are diet drinks unhealthy/dangerous, and can they assist you when dieting?”
BBC News have written articles on this before, and as per the typical, fear-invoking effect the British media tends to have on readers/watchers/listeners, diet drinks (along with just about everything else under the sun) are supposedly linked to cancer.
It’s also been argued that diet drinks actually make people gain weight; the reverse of the intended effect.
On the other end of the spectrum, many dieters claim that these drinks are fantastic for blunting one’s appetite and satiating one’s sweet tooth.
Who is correct?
Diet Drinks & Health
As always, the media gives you the extremes and the potential, but highly unlikely outcomes, as opposed to the actual truth, or at least what is likely to be the truth.
The news is great for keeping up to speed on current events, politics and economics, but you have to realise the extremist, pessimistic slant that tends to be applied to everything. Keep a rational mindset and look at everything objectively.
Do diet drinks make you fat? No, don’t be ridiculous (they have zero calories).
Does aspartame (the main “evil” ingredient in most diet drinks) give you cancer? Possibly. But there are many, many other factors to look at, and it’s unlikely to be the single contributor. People need to stop focusing on the micro and see the big picture.
This paper summarises it nicely: Don’t be a fool and consume insane amounts of the stuff and you’re fine. It’s the same with a lot of consumables; take too much of anything and it will have harmful effects – don’t be stupid.
With this in mind, just about anything can be linked to cancer or diabetes or whatever. According to some newspapers, you can’t eat:
- Any meat (although some just stick to red meat)
- Anything canned
- Sugar (and the majority of fruit)
- Any grains
without dropping dead from some fatal disease. When you add all of these “links” up, all you’re actually “allowed” to eat are (some) fruit and vegetables. Maybe some dairy. Nothing else. Is this realistic, or even remotely accurate? No.
As I’ve explained before, people tend to run into health issues and body composition issues when either:
- Failing to meet their basic needs in regards to nutrition, water or sleep, or a combination of the three.
- Taking potential “bad stuff” to the extremes.
Get the good habits in place first to ensure you are always meeting your needs, and often many health issues seem to magically disappear.
Some bad stuff is actually fine, but only in moderation. Bad stuff only becomes bad when taken in excess. Examples are:
- Excessive drinking
- Excessive smoking
- Excessive drug-taking
- Being very sedentary for long periods of time
These are all risk factors and you should minimise these, particularly if you’re over the age of 40, when your health begins to decline by default, regardless of how awesome you may be. Some of them are addictive, so realistically it’s difficult not to take them to extremes.
Aspartame is also potential “bad stuff”, in the sense that it offers no nutritional value, and can potentially be toxic in rats. Therefore, we have to conclude it’s a very minor risk factor. It’s minor because the ones listed above have actually been proven to be toxic in humans, so they’re 100% definite risk factors.
Basically, don’t take these risk factors to the extremes, major or minor. Can they give you cancer?
Will they give you cancer, if you consistently meet your basic needs throughout your entire life, and minimise the risk factors?
Very probably not, but it will depend to an extent on your genetic predisposition. Many people like to overstate the importance of this though, claiming that they have no control over health issues. Although genetics are a factor, lifestyle is more important.
It’s only when you start combining risk factors that you’re in serious danger of having health issues, and many, many people do this. People naturally appear to want to point the finger at one particular cause, when in fact, for most people it’s going to be the big-picture, overall lifestyle choices that lead to serious health problems.
It’s an accumulation of poor choices.
Diet Drinks & Fat Loss
Okay, now we can appreciate that they are only a very minor risk factor, let’s see if they are useful for fat loss.
For many of you, the fact that diet drinks are a risk factor at all is enough to never consume one ever again; that’s fine.
This paper concludes that diet drinks are effective for weight loss. They serve to blunt appetite and therefore reduce caloric intake. This backs up my experiences and the experiences of many, many others.
However, some claim that it reinforces their sweet tooth, and can potentially lead to the “treat yourself” effect, which usually manifests in this manner:
“Oh I’ve had a great gym session today…so I’ll have a cookie.” OR, “Oh I’ve just had a diet drink instead of a full sugar one, so I can have a donut.”
But, I would argue that these people have the complete wrong mindset when it comes to dieting and fitness success, and are completely fucked whatever they do, so you can’t blame diet drinks for their failures.
This mindset is derived from scarcity, deprivation and lack, which is terrible and never works in the long-run. Dieting mindsets based upon freedom and autonomy are far more sustainable and successful in the long-run.
In terms of the sweet tooth factor, I will have to concede that this is likely subjective and will vary from person to person.
Overall, my suggestion will be to get your overall mindset correct first, THEN potentially look at diet drinks if you seriously need to lose weight and are finding it difficult to transition into a cutting period, despite having a good overall mindset and strategy.
Only consume them occasionally, in the context of a solid, need-satiating lifestyle and you will be good to go.