Diet sodas wrecking the diet? Study finds low-calorie drinks don’t translate to low-calorie lifestyle in kids

The number of kids and teens reaching for diet sodas or low-calorie sweetened beverages is on the rise, but that doesn’t mean waistlines are shrinking.

A new study published in the journal Pediatric Obesity found that youth in the U.S. who consumed low-calorie or zero-calorie sweetened beverages took in about 200 extra calories a day and more calories from added sugars, compared to those who drank water.

“So 200 calories is quite a bit,” said Allison Sylvetsky, an assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and the lead author on the study.

“It’s the equivalent of about a candy bar, and that is a substantially higher calorie intake.”

What was more surprising to the researchers, however, was that the group that drank both zero- or low-calorie sweetened beverages and some sugar-sweetened beverages consumed more overall calories than the group that just drank sugar-sweetened beverages.

“This group was actually worse off in terms of their overall calorie and macronutrient intake,” said Sylvetsky, referencing the study which examined data from 7,026 children and teens enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

“So just because diet beverages have few or no calories relative to sugar-sweetened beverages doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily helpful for lowering total daily calorie and sugar intake.”

In a previous study, Sylvetsky found that about 25% of children in the U.S. consume foods and beverages containing low-calorie sweeteners — a 200% increase from 1999 to 2012. Her most recent study, published May 2, was designed to learn more about the role of these no- or low-calorie sweetened beverages in weight management, considering obesity affects more than 18% of children and adolescents in the U.S. (about 13.7 million).

What the researchers found was that drinking diet beverages doesn’t translate to a low-calorie lifestyle.

“There’s a perception that having that diet soda, to some people, can be like water, and what our findings show is that’s really not the case,” Sylvetsky said.

It’s unclear whether the low-calorie sweetened beverages promote sugar cravings or taste preferences. Sylvetsky said that theory has been hypothesized and “there are biological mechanisms that could be at play,” but more research is needed. She said it’s also important to learn more about what specific foods and food groups those drinking the low-calorie sweetened beverages consumed to make up for the additional calories.

In the meantime, the research available suggests parents should encourage water, flavored water or water with a splash of 100% fruit juice mixed in.

“Really just exposing kids to water, getting them to like water and get used to drinking water, rather than always turning to that sweet alternative that kids tend to like,” Sylvetsky said.

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