Not only are diet soda drinkers choosing diet -- patently inferior -- soda, they also think the artificially sweetened sacrifice will help cut back on calories. However, a new study claims that's not quite what happens in the end. Instead, diet beverage drinkers go on to compensate for the lower calorie cola by choosing more unhealthy food, ultimately eating more calories than they think.
The study, conducted by a researcher at the University of Illinois, examined survey data detailing the eating habits of more than 22,000 adults in the US, and specifically, compared the survey participants' daily calorie intakes, their consumption of five kinds of drinks -- diet beverages, sugar-sweetened beverages, coffee, tea, and alcohol -- as well as their consumption of "discretionary foods," or unhealthy and less nutritious foods.
The findings will make your diet soda seem, well, a little flat. Here's a rundown:
- More than half (53%) of participants said they drink coffee, followed by sugary drinks (43%), tea (26%), alcohol (22%), and diet drinks (21%).
- Drinking alcohol was associated with consuming the most calories, followed by sugary drinks, coffee, diet beverages, and tea.
- People who chose coffee and diet drinks consumed fewer calories than people who chose booze and sugary drinks, but they got more of their calories from unhealthy foods, which suggests a "compensation effect."
This last point could be for a number of reasons, according to the researcher behind the study, kinesiology and community health professor Ruopeng An.
“It may be that people who consume diet beverages feel justified in eating more, so they reach for a muffin or a bag of chips,” An said in a statement. “Or perhaps, in order to feel satisfied, they feel compelled to eat more of these high-calorie foods.” Another theory: people choose diet drinks to feel less guilty about eating junk food. You know, like ordering a Diet Coke to go with your three Big Macs.
In the end, if you're choosing diet beverages to help control your weight or to lose weight, you also need to monitor the quality of the foods you eat, too, according to An. Otherwise, you're just guzzling all that diet stuff for nothing. And who diets for no reason?
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Tony Merevick is Cities News Editor at Thrillist and doesn't drink much soda, let alone diet soda. But he eats plenty of unhealthy food. Send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @tonymerevick.