So much for the switch to diet soda helping you shed inches. The new study, in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, showed people who drank diet soda gained almost triple the amount of abdominal fat over those that did not drink soda at all.

Yeah, it looks like the morning diet coke will have to be water. Researchers focused on 749 participants aged 65 and older. Each were asked every couple of years their daily soda consumption, be it cans of diet or regular.

The data proved to be predictive of abdominal-fat gain, even after lifestyle adjustments were made for the data. Adjustments included preexisting conditions such as diabetes, and lifestyle choices such as smoking and level of physical activity.

People who didn’t drink diet soda added an average of 0.8 inches to their waistline. Those drinking it like water saw their waistlines expand by an average of 3.2 inches. The occasional drinker? 1.8 inches was the average gain.

Striking Results

While still puzzled by the mechanism on how this happens, the researchers called the study ‘striking.’ It adds to the growing pile of evidence that low or no calorie sweeteners come with health concerns. One theory is that the artificial sweeteners can sweeten a soda 200-600 times the sweetness of sugar.

Yeah, that sounds healthy.

“Regular sugar has caloric consequences,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Helen Hazuda, professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. And one of those is that it triggers satiety — a sense of fullness or satisfaction. “Your body is used to knowing that a sweet taste means you are ingesting energy in the form of calories that, if you don’t burn them off, is going to convert to fat,” she says.

The artificial sweeteners in diet soda are confusing our bodies and weaken the link in our brains between calories and how sweet a product is. That can lead to increased cravings and the additional weight gain.

Critics of the Study

The study isn’t without its detractors. The Calorie Control Council, the association that represents reduced-calorie food and beverages was quick to release a statement. “The use of low-calorie sweeteners (LCSs) in weight management has been shown to be beneficial,” the group said in a statement. “While approaches to treat obesity in older individuals is controversial, diet modifications can be a successful part of a weight-management program for older adults.”

It should be noted the study found the biggest increase in belly fat was in people already overweight. “People who are already at cardiometabolic risk because they have higher BMIs are really in double or triple jeopardy,” Hazuda says. “When they think they’re doing something good by drinking artificially sweetened beverages, it’s actually totally counterproductive.”

It shows the overweight populace may have to take more drastic measures, like switching to water over diet soda.

Risks of Belly Fat

Besides not wanting to have a gut, there are increased risks of diseases associated with belly fat. Called visceral fat, it pads the abs from the inside, and is also known as my stealth six-pack. Increases in the fat have been associated with Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

An alternative? Start making the switch to water. Completely calorie free, and we could all stand to drink a few more glasses per day. Eat healthy, live healthy. Most of the time, it is that simple.

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