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Secret Side Effects of Drinking Diet Soda, Experts Say

Sugary sodas aren't the only health threat, say addiction experts weighing in on diet pop's hold.

Which type of diet soda drinker are you: The kind who enjoys the occasional sip of fizz and flavor, or one who has to have it every day? Because it's calorie-free, you might think of your favorite diet soft drink as a free-for-all… however, after one journalist has shared the struggle of her 40-year Diet Coke habit, addiction experts are sounding an alarm about your health that, as one doctor suggests, we should all be "very concerned" about.

This week, the New York Times published an article in which a writer, Abby Ellin, revealed that she'd been "powerless" over her daily Diet Coke craving for decades. "At various times I tried to stop, but I could never deprive myself for longer than a week," Ellin wrote. She was only able to ditch the Diet when persistent abdominal pain required a workup of medical diagnostic procedures, like a colonoscopy, ultrasound, and CT scan… which all came back inconclusive.

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With no other explanation, the writer quit drinking Diet, cold turkey. Then she spoke with clinical experts who specialize on the topics of public health, psychology, and nutrition to uncover what's really happening when you can't live without your favorite diet beverage. Keep reading to learn the secret side effects of drinking diet soda. Also, don't miss Eating Habits to Avoid If You Sit All Day, Say Dietitians.

Science says diet soda may lead to addiction as severe as, or even worse than, cocaine.

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Ellin explains that the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn't count diet soda among its list of addictive substances.

However, research suggests that adding it possibly should be a consideration. Ellin cites a 2007 study in which laboratory rats were forced to choose between saccharin and cocaine, the latter which the researchers described as "a highly addictive and harmful substance."

Between the two, a remarkable 94 percent of the rates chose saccharin over cocaine, even if they'd previously shown signs of cocaine dependence.

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The fake sweetness drives the craving.

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Diet Coke is flavored with aspartame, not saccharin, but the two artificial sweeteners may have a similar effect, one doctor says. Ellin spoke with Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, FACSM. Peeke, who counts nutrition and public health among her specialties, explains that the aspartame that sweetens diet soda is largely to blame for why you might want more: Because artificial sweeteners don't actually deliver a fix.

As Ellin wrote: "Artificial sweeteners activate the brain's reward system, but only about half as much as regular sugar, said Dr. Peeke. Faux sugar doesn't pack the same wallop as the real stuff, so it keeps you wanting more and more."

RELATED: What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Artificial Sweeteners

Caffeine is also to blame.

Ellin says it's sweeteners, combined with caffeine (another addictive substance), that make diet soda a powerful one-two punch to many who love it.

And, the author explains, a 12-ounce can of Diet Coke has about 33% more caffeine than 12 ounces of Coca-Cola Classic (45 milligrams versus 34 milligrams, respectively). This can serve to make Diet Coke all the more addictive, compared to non-diet soft drinks.

Some experts believe it's time we treat diet soda like other drugs.

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Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and the director of the school's Food and Addiction Science and Treatment Lab.

Via Ellin's report, Gearhardt said that if Diet Coke, or any diet soda, were a new pharmaceutical product being put through proper testing protocol for its addictive effects, it would be likely to garner further examination. As Gearhardt put it, "We would be very concerned."

Here's how to know whether you need to dial back on diet.

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Apart from the abdominal pain she was experiencing that spurred her to quit Diet Coke for good, Ellin said that for her, the drink was beginning to taste "like I imagine a Tide pod would."

Besides physical symptoms that might indicate your dependence on diet soda has gone too far, Gearhardt described the following symptoms as some recognizable signs of addiction:

  • When you lose control over a craving.
  • When you consume it, it even though you know you shouldn't.
  • When doing away with it sends you through withdrawal.

There's more you might want to know about diet soft drinks.

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Research has shown diet soft drinks can affect your liver, gut health, insulin levels, your weight, and more. Read Surprising Side Effects of Not Drinking Diet Soda, Say Dietitians.

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Krissy Gasbarre
Krissy is a senior news editor at <em>Eat This, Not That!</em>, managing morning and weekend news related to nutrition, wellness, restaurants and groceries (with a focus on beverages), and more. Read more
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