Want fries with that diet soda? You aren’t alone, and you may not be ‘saving’ as many calories as you think by consuming diet drinks.
A new study that examined the dietary habits of more than 22,000 US adults found that diet-beverage consumers may compensate for the absence of calories in their drinks by noshing on extra food that is loaded with sugar, sodium, fat and cholesterol.
The study which will appear in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that more than 90% of those in the study consumed so-called ‘ discretionary foods’ – such as cookies, ice cream, chocolate, fries and pastries – daily, averaging about 482 calories from these products each day.
In addition about 97% percent of the study population consumed at least one of the five types of beverages daily, with about 41% drinking beverages from at least two of the categories. More than 25% consumed three or more types of beverages daily.
Compensation and justification
While coffee and diet-beverage drinkers consumed fewer total calories each day than people who preferred alcohol or sugary drinks, they obtained a greater percentage of their daily calorie intake from discretionary foods – a finding that suggests a possible compensation effect, An said.”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,” said lead researcher University of Illinois professor Ruopeng An. “Or perhaps, in order to feel satisfied, they feel compelled to eat more of these high-calorie foods.”
A third possible explanation might be that people opt to drink diet beverages because they feel guilty about indulging in unhealthy food, An said.
“It may be one – or a mix of – these mechanisms,” An said. “We don’t know which way the compensation effect goes.”
Smart people making dumb choices
Associations between beverage consumption and daily calorie intake differed substantially across different cultural and ethnic groups, An found. For instance,
- Among people with the most education and highest incomes, diet beverages and alcohol were linked with increased calorie consumption, whereas, sugar-sweetened beverages and coffee were associated with elevated caloric intake among people with the lowest incomes.
- Obese adults who drank diet beverages consumed more calories in discretionary foods, as did normal-weight participants who drank sugar-sweetened beverages.
- African-Americans who consumed diet beverages, sugary drinks and coffee, as well as Hispanics who drank alcohol, had the highest daily calorie intakes across all of the racial and ethnic groups.
In exploring associations between beverage type and dietary quality, An found that people who consumed sugar-sweetened beverages or coffee had the worst nutrition profiles.
Look at diet as a whole
Switching to diet drinks may not help people control their weight if they don’t pay attention to the quantity and quality of the foods they consume, An said.
“If people simply substitute diet beverages for sugar-sweetened beverages, it may not have the intended effect because they may just eat those calories rather than drink them,” An said. “We’d recommend that people carefully document their caloric intake from both beverages and discretionary foods because both of these add calories – and possibly weight – to the body.”
An also recommended that public health interventions take a holistic approach, encouraging people to assess their beverage consumption in the context of their overall dietary behavior.