Diet or Regular? The Surprising Science and Psychology of Diet Soda Part II

Part II: Psychology

Last week, I explored the science of diet soda’s effect on physical health in order to answer the question…

Is diet soda really healthier than regular?

Before I explore the psychology of this question, I want to address one more physical impact that I left out: your teeth. The journal of General Dentistry published a study equating diet soda’s effect on tooth erosion to meth and crack, igniting a firestorm of articles. But before you scrutinize your smile for signs of meth mouth, keep in mind that this study only compared three case studies (one meth user, one crack user, and one diet soda drinker), and the diet soda drinker was a woman who drank four liters of diet soda daily for five years. Other research shows that diet soda parallels beverages with similar acidity levels, namely juice, regular soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks, when it comes to tooth erosion. So, you probably won’t rot out your mouth with moderate diet soda consumption, but reducing intake will leave you with pearlier whites and lower dental bills.

Now, let’s move beyond the physical domain….

Diet soda and a culture of calorie-counting

In a culture that fears fat more than death, diet soda captivates us with its promise of zero-calorie sweetness. You only need to see one diet soda ad to realize that marketers are capitalizing on a culture of calorie counters and fat phobias, and oftentimes, that culture is directed towards women…



If you read Part I of this series, you know that drinking diet soda may not make you skinny (it may do the opposite!), and yet the passionate pursuit of skinny fuels the diet soda market. Because women want to be skinny. And if drinking diet will get us there, then we’re all in! So we get ads of slim, scantily-clad, faceless women whose bodies are the product of drinking diet. But what does this say about our culture? About how we view women and their bodies? In my research for this blog, I noticed that men receive similar messaging around diet soda and achieving an “ideal body.” Check out this classic Diet Coke ad from the early 90’s:

Health limitations (like diabetes or metabolic syndrome) aside, I can’t help but connect a person’s choice to drink diet soda to body image. If the two were not inextricably linked, then why do diet soda ads so clearly connect diet soda and thin, muscled bodies? Why don’t they focus on diabetes risk? The health effects of sugar? Perhaps because, in our culture, our health matters far less than looking thin, toned, and attractive to the opposite sex. Yikes.

Mindfulness: a happy medium?

Diet soda ads may be feeding an unhealthy culture of thinness, but getting skinny isn’t the only reason why people choose diet over regular. Food is a multi-sensory experience. Mindful eating is a recent trend based on an old idea that involves tuning into your body’s cues and cravings, and instead of fighting them, giving your body what it needs and (gasp!) wants. Think about how children eat. They usually know exactly when they are hungry, when they feel full, and what they want without relying on clocks or nutrition labels. This is mindful eating.

So, why am I talking about mindfulness in a diet soda blog?

In college, I had a diet soda addiction. I grew up sneaking sips of my mom’s diet coke, and I only increased my habit as an undergrad. Until a friend said something that changed my perspective: “When you drink diet soda, you promise it sugar and then don’t deliver. You are betraying your body.”

Betraying my body? Whoa. C’mon…just trying to save some calories here!

But the more I thought about what she said, the more it made sense. Why do I reach for diet soda? What is it I really crave/need/want? Answering these questions helped me figure out that my body is probably not needing/wanting/craving an artificially sweetened beverage, so I am giving it diet soda when it really craves something else. It was hard for me to let go of the “guilt-free-calorie-free” mantra and tune into what my body may be craving, but I felt much better once I did. The next time you reach for a diet soda, here are some questions you can ask to tune into what your body may be wanting:

If you want….

  • Something sweet? Try juice, fruit, candy or even a regular soda (moderation is key here)
  • Something fizzy? Try seltzer water or seltzer with juice
  • A calorie-free drink that isn’t water? Iced black or herbal tea
  • Caffeine? Coffee or tea with milk OR iced coffee/tea with milk

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