Diet Soda and Your Teeth: A Healthy Mix?

This post is about diet soda and the like for a reason -- and the reason is people tend to drink a lot of it.
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Every time I see a commercial for diet soda, I cringe. Actually, as a NYC Cosmetic Dentist any kind of soda commercial makes me cringe. That's because we may as well call it what it is -- sugar water. But diet soda in particular gets to me, because it's subliminally marketed as healthier than soda, because it has no calories.

Trust me, it's not healthier than regular soda (or pop, for those of you in the Midwest). And despite not having any sugar or corn syrup, it's still pretty bad for your teeth as well.

The problems with soda are twofold: first, the sugar content is bad for your teeth (but that fact is pretty obvious). The second bad part is the acidity, which is quite high in soda pop. Acidic content (aka pH) is measured on a scale of 0 (most acidic) to 14 (least). Battery acid is a 1 on the scale -- tap water is a 7 (this may seem backwards, but yes, the higher numbers are less acidic. Blame science.)

Cola measures in the 2.3-2.5 range (1), which means it's much closer to battery acid than it is water. How's that make you feel? Not so good, right?

Now you might be asking "That's all well and good, but what does this do to your teeth?"

Well, the acid wears down your tooth enamel. And your tooth enamel is the main defense against ... everything, really. Plaque, tarter, decay -- it all starts with the enamel. Less is not more here. Anything that weakens tooth enamel is going to be an issue in the long term.

Related to the above, citric acid (which is the acid in most non-cola soft drinks) is even more damaging to your tooth enamel. So this means sports drinks, "clear" diet sodas, diet fruit drinks etc. -- they all have the same negative effects on your teeth.

This post is about diet soda and the like for a reason -- and the reason is people tend to drink a lot of it. I will admit that the above "enamel-wearing" points are as pronounced with regular soda as it is with diet pop (again, I'm trying to use "soda" and "pop" both to be inclusive!) But the big issue with diet soda is the fact that people think it's healthier, and thus, tend to drink more of it. It's all about calories, and everything else is forgotten. I don't know how many times I have heard "I'm addicted to diet coke" (et. al.) from a patient. I know I sound like a stern librarian, but I have to be honest -- that stuff is the worst stuff you can drink. Even though it has sugar, I'd almost rather see people drink regular pop, because I'm convinced that one or two regular pops are less damaging than seven of the diet version (again, people who drink diet soda tend to drink a lot of it). But truthfully, I'd rather see people drink neither.

The fact that people drink a lot of diet soda also means they are very likely drinking less of other (healthier) beverages. To give an example, according to one study (1), in 1966, the average American drank 20 gallons of soft drinks and 33 gallons of milk. But in 2003, those numbers were not just reversed, but the soft drinks took an additional big leap as well (46 gallons of soft drinks and 22 gallons of milk). Milk has its own detractors, but one must admit that milk also contains a lot of nutrients -- protein, vitamins and calcium (we dentists like calcium). Diet soda? Not so much.

OK, I'm not looking to advocate milk here (not yet, anyway). But if you are looking for something to drink, what's wrong with drinking just plain old water? I have to tell you, if you drink soft drinks, I can't think of a healthier "small step" you could do than to simply swap out your soda (diet or otherwise) for water. Your teeth will be healthier, your body will be happier, and you'll probably lose some weight as well.

Lose weight? Yea, probably. This isn't "dental" in nature, but I am going to point out that many scientists feel diet pop actually doesn't help one lose weight. In fact, it may have the exact opposite effect.(2) In essence, diet soda "fools" your body. Your body actually expects sugar (due to the taste), but it's getting nothing (and it's not just getting no sugar -- it's literally getting nothing -- there's pretty much no nutritional value in diet soda). It also makes people feel like they are "saving" calories, so some folks tend to eat "more" (the old joke of someone ordering a double thick fast food burger, giant fries and a diet soda).

I know we dentists sound like a broken record in regards to sweets and such. But really, try and kick the diet soda habit -- it's not doing anything good for you.

Until next time, keep smiling!



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