People who drink diet beverages tend to get a good portion of their daily calories from ‘junk’ food, which cancels out any benefits associated with the sugar-free drinks, a new study shows.
This finding comes from a comprehensive review of nutrition data by researchers at the University of Illinois. Almost all participants in the study were shown to eat discretionary foods, or foods that do not belong to a major food group. These include many junk food favorites, such as french fries, cookies, chocolate, and ice cream.
For the study, the team analyzed the dietary habits of 22,513 people. They then compared the daily caloric intakes from discretionary foods and five types of beverages, according to a report by UPI. The five beverages were coffee, tea, sugar-sweetened beverages, diet drinks, and alcohol. All of the data came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and was collected between 2003 and 2012.
Overall, more than 90 percent of survey participants ate discretionary foods every day–amounting to an average of 482 extra calories. In addition, 97 percent drank at least one of the five beverage types daily, 41 percent had at least two drinks a day, and 25 percent had three.
The researchers also found that those who drank coffee and diet beverages got more of their daily calories from junk foods than those who did not. Out of all the beverage types, people who consumed diet drinks had the highest amount of increased caloric intake.
“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,” said Ruopeng An, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois, in a press release.
The leading theory behind this finding is that those who drink diet beverages feel less guilty about eating junk food. When someone drinks a sugar-free soda, they may see it as a green light to indulge in one of their favorite sugary snacks. The researchers also postulated that, by taking in less calories from their drinks, people tend to feel less full, which also would lead them to snack more often.