Staying hydrated is one of the best things you can do for your health. Even mild dehydration can cause headaches, irritability, poor athletic performance or constipation. Adequate fluid intake also helps the body’s natural detox systems.
Most Americans do a great job of staying hydrated. However, the majority of us enjoy at least one sugary beverage daily. That one drink likely puts us over the recommended 6 teaspoons (9 teaspoons for men) or less of added sugars per day. For example, did you know that one 20-ounce sports drink can contain 8.5 teaspoons of added sugar? A large, sugary coffee beverage can contain about 6 teaspoons of added sugar.
We know that added sugars can be harmful to our health and extend our waistlines. This is why many of us turn to artificially sweetened beverages (ASBs) or sparkling water instead. But are those choices really healthier, and if so which one is better for you?
What Are Artificially Sweetened Beverages?
ASBs are often labeled light, diet or zero-calorie. Artificial sweeteners provide a sweet taste without the calories from sugar. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved six artificial sweeteners for use in our food supply. Your favorite ASB likely contains aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and/or acesulfame potassium.
Are Artificially Sweetened Beverages Safe?
The FDA maintains that artificial sweeteners are safe. For starters, we would need to consume a huge amount of them to exceed the recommended limits. (A 132-pound person would need to eat more than 23 packets of Splenda per day!) The FDA has reviewed hundreds of studies looking at the effects of artificial sweeteners on human health. Their conclusion: safe for routine consumption.
A growing body of research, however, hints that artificial sweeteners may not be completely harmless. Studies in both humans and animals show a possible link between sweeteners and weight gain. In one study, those drinking one-and-a-half cans of ASBs per week were almost 70 percent more likely than non-drinkers to later develop diabetes. Increased waist circumference has also been linked to ASBs. This is particularly concerning because having a higher waist circumference increases your chances of a heart attack or stroke, even if you have a “healthy” BMI. Those numbers may sound scary, but know that the science isn’t perfect! It could very well be that subjects who are overweight are also more likely to favor diet soda.
Most ASBs also contain other ingredients that may be harmful to our health. For example, a popular diet cola’s list includes phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate and caramel color. Trace amounts of Bisphenol-A (BPA) are also found in the lining of most canned beverages).
With all of these considerations, it’s best to enjoy ASBs in moderation.
What About Sparkling Water?
We’ve established that it’s best to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages whenever possible. And unfortunately, ASBs might not be much better. So what’s left?
Sparkling water is a growing trend, and it can be a good alternative. The popular brand LaCroix, for example, has a refreshingly short list of ingredients: sparkling water and natural flavors. Essential oils offer a fruity hint without any artificial sweeteners, flavors or colors. Some fizzy water beverages (usually those made with seltzer) contain added sodium. (LaCroix does not.)
Beverage cans do contain trace amounts of BPA. The FDA has stated that BPA is not harmful to human health at current levels of exposure, but there’s ongoing research to determine if long-term exposure to BPA at very low levels is a cause for concern. Beyond cans, we’re all exposed to small amounts of BPA through our foods and our environment — the biggest sources are canned foods and hard plastic containers. BPA is also found on receipts and in some personal care products. Compared to other sources, the amount you’re likely to ingest when you drink from aluminum cans is very small.
If you’re concerned about BPA, consider looking for sparkling waters, flavored naturally, in plastic or glass containers. (Soft plastic beverage containers do not contain BPA.)
Artificially Sweetened Beverages Are Not a Magic Bullet
To sum up, drinking a diet soda doesn’t make up for that large cheeseburger or for not being active. Simple sparkling waters can be a good choice for keeping hydrated, and you can always add a twist of lemon or a slice of cucumber to pure, simple water — we recommend either of these options over diet soda. And keep in mind that no matter which sugary-drink alternative you pick, it’s still important to eat a healthy diet and keep active.