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Who hasn’t been there and done this: Ordered a diet soda virtuously to keep calories in check? And upended the diet by ordering fries or chicken wings?

A new study that examined the dietary habits of over 22,000 adults has found that people who opt for diet beverages may compensate for the absence of calories in their drinks by overdosing on food that’s loaded with sugar, sodium, fat and cholesterol.

The study, conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and published in Science Daily, examined 10 years of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.  Participants’ consumption of discretionary foods and five types of beverages – diet or sugar-free drinks; sugar-sweetened beverages, coffee; tea; and alcohol – were compared. Discretionary foods are foods that are not required by the human body but add variety to the diet. Think energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods such as ice cream, chocolate, cookies, pastries, and fries.

The study revealed that alcohol consumption was associated with the largest increase in daily calorie intake (384 calories), followed by sugar-sweetened beverages (226 calories), coffee (108 calories), diet beverages (69 calories) and tea (64 calories).

The study found that while coffee and diet beverage drinkers consumed fewer total calories each day than people who preferred alcohol or sugary drinks, they obtained a greater percentage of their daily calorie intake from discretionary foods. This finding suggests a possible compensation effect.

Junk Food OverdoseResearchers feel that people who consume diet beverages “feel justified in eating more, so they reach for a muffin or a bag of chips. Or perhaps, in order to feel satisfied, they feel compelled to eat more of these high-calorie foods.” Or perhaps they choose diet beverages to compensate for indulging in unhealthy food.

The study showed that diet beverages and alcohol were linked with increased calorie consumption among people with the most education and highest incomes. Obese adults who drank diet beverages consumed more calories in discretionary foods, as did normal-weight participants who drank sugar-sweetened beverages.

Clearly, switching to diet drinks won’t help control weight if you don’t pay attention to the quantity and quality of food you consume.

“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,” the researchers wrote. They recommend that people should account for their caloric intake from “both beverages and discretionary foods because both of these add calories — and possibly weight — to the body”.

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Written by Neha Jain

Neha Jain

She may have multiple degrees to back her expertise, but Neha Jain believes there’s nothing complex about nutrition. There is no magic formula for a healthy diet – the trick lies in balancing a variety of food groups and ensuring you’re eating the right portion size. With an MSc in Food and Nutrition from Delhi University and diplomas in naturopathy and yogic sciences, Neha is also a certified diabetes educator with extensive experience in endocrinological disorders and weight reduction, having worked with renowned endocrinologist Dr Ambrish Mithal in Delhi. Her goal is to help people find easy ways to make healthy choices, and believes HealthifyMe has simplified her task with its technology. Neha’s made the right choices for her family – she’s helped her husband control his high cholesterol levels and borderline diabetes by changing the meal plan at home, and introducing him to regular exercise – and now she’s hoping to ‘healthify’ you too.

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