Are diet soft drinks really a better option?

ACTION: Adapting CANSAS to Individuals’ Own Needs                                                 Recovery Conversation Theme #4: Looking After Myself 


by Grant J Everett 

Did you know “soft” drinks originally got their name by being seen as a safe alternative to alcohol (“hard” drinks)? Another fun fact is that many early soft drinks were sold for medicinal purposes in the 19th Century, with Coca Cola marketed as a brain and nerve tonic that was claimed to be able to increase your intelligence (K Eschner, 2017). 

We’re now well past the point of pretending that soft drinks are good for you in any way. First off, unless you’re drinking a Light or Diet variety, soft drinks contain massive amounts of refined sugar and empty calories. They have zero nutritional value, which means drinking them will only take up space in your stomach that would be better allocated to a more worthwhile drink/meal/snack. 

The World Health Organisation recommends a maximum intake of 6 teaspoons of added sugar in our diet per day, but the optimal amount of added sugar in our diets should (ideally) be zero. A single can of cola contains MORE than 9 teaspoons of sugar, so a single 375mL can will immediately put you over your daily limit. A 600mL bottle of full-strength Coca-Cola contains 17 teaspoons of sugar and 240 calories without any nutritional value, and it would take the average adult more than an hour of walking to burn it off again. 

Despite the terrible reputation of added sugar, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians are consuming more of the white stuff than ever before. ABS numbers show we take in an average of 14 teaspoons (60 grams) of refined sugar per day, with teenage males consuming the most added sugar at 18 teaspoons (92 grams) a day. It is feared that the next generation will not outgrow these bad habits, leading to a lifetime of poor diet, obesity and illnesses like diabetes and heart issues (M Dannie 2017). It’s even worse in America: according to Euromonitor, the average person in the United States consumes more than 25 teaspoons, or 126 grams, of added sugar per day. That’s the equivalent of drinking more than three cans of full-strength cola (McFarland, 2016). 

Where does all this sugar come from? The data showed a third of our sugar intake comes from “extra” foods and beverages, with soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, and fruit and vegetable juices making up a third of the added sugar in our diet, and we get another 9 percent from the usual suspects: confectionery, cakes and muffins. So while 60 grams (or 14 teaspoons) of sugar may sound like an obscene amount to scoff, it’s really not that difficult to do. For example, a large fruit juice can contain a day’s worth of sugar in one big cup. 

Is fake better? 

Sugar-free and calorie-free soft drinks rely on artificial sweeteners to be palatable. While this keeps down their calorie content and is a far better choice than scoffing 9 teaspoons of sugar, according to Harvard University, consuming artificial sweeteners can cause changes in your brain concerning how you taste foods, and this is thought to lead us to craving sweeter and sweeter choices over time. However, the long-term effects of consuming large quantities of artificial sweeteners is still unknown, despite what the current rumours are. 

The OTHER chemical in cola 

Many soft drinks (especially colas) contain caffeine. Caffeine reduces feelings of tiredness while boosting your physical and cognitive performance. While it is considered to be safe in moderate amounts, caffeine’s diuretic effects will cause you to urinate more often, dehydrating you in the process. Too much caffeine can make you feel anxious, jittery or nauseous, and lead to trouble sleeping. The bitterness of caffeine is another reason that colas need so much sugar (or sweetener) to be drinkable, as caffeine is very bitter, especially in large amounts. It’s also addictive. 


For the purposes of hydration, soft drinks and other beverages that contain lots of sugar or caffeine will never be as effective at curing your thirst as water. If you regularly crave for soft drink, try to gradually reduce your intake by slowly replacing it with healthier alternatives, like sugarfree iced tea, water with a twist of lemon, or a diet sodastream option. Be sure to drink H2O for the majority of your fluid intake. Everything in moderation! 

A useful tip: when you feel like a Coke, have a glass of water first. 

“Coca-Cola’s Creator Said the Drink Would Make You Smarter”, Kat Eschner, 29th of March 2016 

“Are There Any Health Benefits for Soda?”, Marie Dannie, October 3rd 2017 

“21 Ways Drinking Soda Is Bad for Your Health”, Elisha McFarland, Food and Health, July 25, 2016 

“Diet Soda: Good or Bad?”, Elise Mandl BSc APD, May 1st 2018 

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