Monthly Archives: April 2015

Are Diet Sodas Really a Diet Food?

“I’ll have a diet soda with my French fries and double bacon cheeseburger. Oh! And one of those apple things,” he added, pointing to a pastry. The guy giving the order then looked at me as I waited my turn to order coffee at the highway restaurant rest stop. “Might as well save some calories, ” he laughed as he patted his prominent abdomen. I nodded to him as I asked for my coffee to be sweetened with a packet of the blue non-calorie sweetener.

We all seem to do it: eat a high-calorie meal but drink a no-calorie beverage sweetened with something artificial, munch on a bag of potato chips along with a diet soda, dig into an obscenely rich dessert but add a non-calorie sweetener rather than sugar to our coffee or tea, and drink alcoholic beverages without concern for their calories but “freak out” if we discover we are drinking real soda, rather than the diet stuff.

But do we really think of our coffee sweetened with an artificial sweetener as diet coffee? If we add diet quinine water to a gin and tonic, is the drink now a diet drink? Is artificially-sweetened bottled cranberry juice or flavored iced tea a diet beverage? Do hard candies sweetened with a sugar substitute qualify as diet candies?

A petition just filed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by a California-based group, U.S. Right to Know, wants companies to stop using the word “diet” on products that use artificial sweeteners. The petition states that: “Consumers are using products — Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi — that are advertised to make us think they assist in weight loss, when in fact ample scientific evidence suggests that this is not true and (instead quite) the opposite may well be true.” [1]

Interesting. Do people really believe that they will lose weight by drinking these products? I doubt that the man standing in front of me contemplating his snack of a double cheeseburger, fries and dessert thought that he would be three pounds lighter because he drank a diet soda. And I suspect that my not ordering a doughnut (although I wanted to) along with my coffee had more of an impact on my weight than putting that stuff from that blue packet in my coffee.

The writers of the petition reviewed the research literature on diet beverages and weight gain that seemed to confirm the need to remove the word diet from sugar-free beverages. Some studies such one published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine in 2010 suggested that artificial sweeteners may contribute to weight gain, [2] and another in 2012 found that an association between artificially sweetened beverages and weight gain might exist in children. [3] But just because an association exists between two events doesn’t mean there is a causative relationship between them. I have a relative who drinks copious quantities of a caffeinated diet beverage because she hates coffee and tea, but wants to consume caffeine throughout the day. She doesn’t like the taste of the fructose-sweetened version of the caffeinated sodas; they taste too sweet to her. If I asked her whether she thought drinking so much diet soda would help her lose weight, her answer would be, “In my dreams.”

However, might diet beverages indirectly cause weight gain? Might the man in front of me at the fast food restaurant justify ordering dessert because his beverage contained no calories? Do we have less guilt at gobbling up a rich dessert because there is no sugar in our tea? Do we reach for the sugarless chocolate ice cream in the freezer without a thought to its calories because it is artificially sweetened?

There is another, more biologically-subtle, reason why so-called sugar-free foods might cause weight gain. Many people have a natural and unavoidable craving for carbohydrates, especially in the afternoon and/or evenings. The craving arises from their brains and is related to the brain’s need to make the neurotransmitter serotonin. Often the craving is accompanied by a small, but very real, deterioration in mood. Eating a carbohydrate, sweet or starchy, will restore serotonin levels and improve mood soon after the carbohydrate is digested. [4 ]If the craver attempts to satisfy this need to eat something sweet with something artificially sweetened, there will be no restoration of serotonin levels in the brain and no improvement in mood. So what happens? The craver may eventually give in to his or her craving, which was, of course, not satisfied by the diet beverage. Consequently, this person may scarf down a snack food that is sugary but also high in fat like a chocolate chip cookie, an ice cream cone, a candy bar, or a cupcake with three inches of frosting.

Perhaps if the craver satisfied the craving immediately by eating a low-calorie, mildly-sweet snack like graham crackers or licorice sticks rather than attempting to quell it with the diet beverage, the impulse to eat a fattening carbohydrate snack could have been curtailed.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of the petition. Since so many of us order a diet (fill in the blank) drink without giving a nanosecond’s thought to the word diet on the label, it may be very difficult for us to get used to another name. We tend to use the work Xerox instead of copy as in, “I will Xerox this” or Kleenex rather than facial tissue as in, “I have a Kleenex.” So I suspect we will continue to call artificially sweetened beverages diet, even though we know they are not.


Will the Paleo Diet Turn You Into Attila the Hun?

For the followers of the Paleo diet, the one that allows you to eat mainly meat, with a few carefully chosen vegetables and fruits thrown in for garnish, it might be instructive to read about the exploits of a famous, infamous devourer of only flesh: Attila the Hun.

Attila is considered one of the most ferocious warriors in history. [1] Born in 406 A.D. in what is now Hungary, he and his brother (until Attila killed him) ruled over the tribes of the Hun kingdom. But soon his conquests went far beyond being the ruler of the neighborhood. Known as the Scourge of God, Attila attacked, devastated and conquered lands from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean with a ruthlessness that made his name synonymous with terror and savagery.

Could his Paleo-type diet have anything to do with his successful, murderous objectives? According to eyewitness accounts of those who dined with him, and as reported in Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Attila followed the Paleo diet:

“The royal table was served in wooden cups and platters, flesh was his only food, and the conqueror of the North never tasted the luxury of bread.” [2]

Many in the 21st century will applaud Attila’s diet, although not many might want him as a neighbor. “Down with bread!” these nouveau-Paleos will say. “Out with any carbohydrate! Dump the dairy, bump the beans, discard most fruit and vegetables and eat animal protein or perish!” Adherents of this diet, cleansed of the evil nutrient carbohydrate, claim unfettered amounts of energy, a lean strong body and an alert, mentally-active brain.

Attila died at 47, but the circumstances of his death are unclear. He either died from an unstoppable nose bleed or just as likely was poisoned or stabbed to death. But it is also possible that his “flesh” diet may have contributed to his early demise.

A highly-respected clinical researcher, Dean Ornish, in a recent article in the New York Times, elegantly described the health hazards of a predominantly animal protein diet. His research confirmed the dramatic improvement in cardiovascular health from eating high-fiber carbohydrates along with vegetables and fruits and eating only small amounts of animal protein. [3] Might Attila have died from an early heart attack?

Perhaps his cognitive abilities were impaired by his diet, so he did not take precautions to prevent himself from being murdered. A study published this March by the journal The Lancet [4] looked at changes in cognition, including executive function and mental alertness, among 2,654 Finnish subjects ages 60-77. Half were told to stay on their normal diet that was relatively high in animal protein, and the test group was given a diet in which over half the calories came from complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, and minimal consumption of animal protein and fat. Those eating a diet somewhat similar to that proposed by Dean Ornish in this NYT op-ed did significantly better on tests of cognition such as executive function and mental alertness.

So did a diet only of animal meat leave Attila a little loopy?

Or maybe he was in such a bad mood all the time that he became impossible to live with. It is said that he died on his marital bed. (Lucky bride?) A zero carbohydrate diet all his life could have done a job on his serotonin levels. We know from decades of research on how eating carbohydrates indirectly causes serotonin to be made. [5] Without carbs in his diet, his brain may have had so little active serotonin that he was depressed, angry, or just apathetic about conquering more lands. Those familiar with two pesky mood problems, PMS and/or winter depression, know the feeling of fatigue, irritability, depression and anger associated with too little serotonin activity.

Of course, Paleo man and Attila would not have known that even though protein contains tryptophan, the amino acid out of which serotonin is made, very little tryptophan gets into the brain when protein is eaten. It took several more centuries for this to be discovered by some carbohydrate-eating scientists. [6]

But maybe we are judging Attila too harshly. Gibbons says that bread was a luxury. Could it be that Attila had tired of his Paleo diet and his conquests were driven by the need to find a good loaf?


2.) Gibbon Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1826 Vol 3. Chapter 28, p.210
6.) Ibid.