Kids Who Regularly Drink Diet Soda Don't Consume Fewer Calories
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Kids and teens who drink diet sodas and other low-calorie drinks-such as sports drinks or teas with artificial sweeteners-don't actually consume fewer calories on average.
In fact, according to a new study published in Pediatric Obesity, adolescents who consume low-calorie or zero-calorie sweetened drinks actually take in 200 more calories a day over those who drink only water.
What's more, those kids consume just as many calories as those who drink sugary beverages.
The study, conducted by George Washington University researchers, reviewed data from 7,026 U.S. children and teens between the years of 2011 and 2016. The data included what the adolescents ate and drank during a 24-hour period-including sweetened beverages.
The researchers found kids and teens who regularly drank low-calorie sweetened beverages took in as many as 200 extra calories on average compared to those who drank water. And if they drank both artificially sweetened and sugary beverages, adolescents could consume as many as 450 more calories a day when compared to water-drinkers.
In an email, lead researcher Allison C. Sylvetsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at George Washington University, told EatingWell that she and her fellow researchers were "surprised by magnitude of the difference in calorie intake between low-calorie sweetened beverage (LCSB) and water consumers-[an average] intake of nearly 200 additional calories per day is substantial."
Unfortunately, this study didn't assess where those extra calories were coming from. "However," said Sylvetsky, it could be "either biological-e.g. [diet drinks] may stimulate appetite ... or behavioral-e.g. [diet soda drinkers] were also eating burgers and pizza."
Sylvetsky also noted that, as the study had only established a correlation, it wasn't an indication that drinking diet soda was causing the increased calorie consumption: "It is also possible that our findings could be explained by reverse causality, as the analysis was cross-sectional. These data serve as the foundation to explore potential causal mechanisms in future experimental studies."
But one thing is clear, drinking diet soda doesn't seem to help teens reduce the calories they consume. "These results challenge the utility of diet or low-calorie sweetened beverages when it comes to cutting calories and weight management," said Sylvetsky in a press release. "Our findings suggest that water should be recommended as the best choice for kids and teens."
It's a recommendation that EatingWell nutritionist Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D., agrees with. "Just because they're low in calories-or have no calories-I would still advise moderation here," Valente says. "There's research that shows consuming too many sweeteners may impact gut health negatively and they may increase our desire for sweet foods (the same way that sugar can)." Instead, "We tend to use real sugar, honey or maple syrup in our recipes and we just try to just use less of it," she says.
If you are worried about your teen's calorie intake, try to encourage them to drink more water, which you can make "more fun by getting a cool reusable bottle and adding stickers," says Valente. But if your child or teen still craves something sweet, Valente suggests trying flavored waters-many of which don't have added sugar, and can be flat or sparkling. They "are more fun than just plain water," Valente explains.
Related: 6 Tips for Healthy Hydration