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updated: 6/3/2011 11:57 AM

Diet soda conundrum

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I've been drinking cola since my teenage years and switched to diet cola when it first came out. Since the calories in any regular soft drink come from the sweetener (whether sugar or high fructose corn syrup), I figured anything I could do to cut calories would help my weight.

With that in mind and to save money, years later I started making my own diet cola at home using tap water, diet cola syrup from a warehouse club and a countertop carbonation system.

Earlier this year I saw articles about a possible connection between diet soda and weight issues. Seriously? How could no-calorie, artificially sweetened soft drinks possibly make me fat?

It appears that when our palates sense "sweet," it triggers insulin release to deal with the glucose it believes is coming. That insulin metabolizes the glucose already in the bloodstream; sending those glucose calories either to muscles (as glycogen) or into storage as fat. Since it appears that most folk's systems are predisposed to store those calories as fat that may or may not be needed later, excess glucose calories could make us fat.

Does that same hold true for zero-calorie, artificially sweetened soft drinks? I'm no scientist, but it appears that two mechanisms may be at work here.

The first: When blood sugar levels fall (as they would when insulin does its job), our bodies send out chemical messages that we need more sugar to bring the levels back up and our brains tell us we're hungry, especially for something sweet. How our bodies answer that call may drive food overconsumption, especially of sweet foods.

Secondly: Because of that palate-tricking message, it looks like everything that contains carbohydrates -- especially refined carbohydrates -- that we consume while and after drinking a diet soda, could also be metabolized by that insulin. In other words, our sensing sweetness triggers a false message causing too much insulin to be released and that insulin, in turn may trigger calorie storage (as fat) instead of calorie burn (used by muscles).

So I've altered my drinking habits yet again, turning this time to fruity, unsweetened still and sparkling water, like Mandarin orange or pomegranate blueberry flavors, for my soda fix. Those sparkling waters do not taste sweet to me, so it's less likely to send false "sweet" messages.

My theory has yet to be studied by scientists, but using my scale as my research tool, my hypothesis is leaning that it may be true.

So what's been your experience with diet sodas and weight loss, or gain? I'd love to hear all about it. Write me at don@theleanwizard.com.

Try this recipe: You may be the grilling chef during coming weekend, but this salad works for a substantial Saturday or Sunday afternoon lunch. Looks great, tastes terrific and delivers real fiber from fresh vegetables. Enjoy!

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at don@theleanwizard.com.

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