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Figuring out what’s the best diet drink of all

Chocolate is good for you. So are red wine and coffee. Bread (the staff of life) is bad, and dairy is dangerous. Or at least that’s what health experts seem to be saying this month. Every few months, a scientific study on some basic food will be released that turns conventional thinking on its head. But wait six months and there will most likely be a different study that refutes the premise of the first. Go on the Internet and you’ll get really buffeted by conflicting ideas. It can be especially confusing because, on the Internet, it can be very difficult to separate fact from fiction. It’s hard to tell who’s behind certain websites and what the level of legitimate scientific study is.Maybe it seems crazy to even mention diet soda in a health column but with so much conflicting information and talk about the health benefits and risks of diet food products we wanted to explore the topic a bit. Aspartame, which is the sugar substitute that is used in many diet sodas, excites an enormous amount of controversy. We’ve heard some pretty scary things about aspartame, and it’s hard to know which are true and which are exaggerated or completely in the realm of urban legend. If you believed everything you read, you might think that aspartame causes cancer in rats and multiple sclerosis and lupus; you might hear that it will actually make you fat and that it is a chemical compound that will turn to plastic in your joints. That last one, about the joints, is the one I heard recently that made me say: OK, no more diet soda. But then I thought, well, let’s see if it’s true. All of the above claims can be found on a variety of websites; there are thousands of entries on aspartame. And while there aren’t many reputable science and health groups that specifically condemn aspartame, there also aren’t really any that recommend it.After an afternoon of online research, I still am not sure what I think about diet sodas with aspartame. But here are a few things that I am going to consider next time I reach into the refrigerator for something cold to drink.First of all, even if the very worst scenarios attributed to aspartame are true, the occasional soda is probably not going to bring about those effects. But if you’re existing on soda (diet or otherwise), drinking it for breakfast and sipping it throughout the day, that’s probably not good for a whole host of reasons regardless of whether or not it’s “a poison.”But before I go ahead and open a can of something cold and fizzy, I have to ask: Why am I even drinking diet soda? For the taste? Probably not. I mean, it’s not exactly yummy. Because I’m thirsty? Sometimes, maybe. But when you’re thirsty, your body’s first choice is water. Soda is tasty and can be quenching but it does have a substantial amount of sodium which, in large quantities, can be dehydrating. Am I choosing a diet soda because I’m dieting and I would never dream of consuming the full caloric load of a nondiet soda? Well, this may be getting closest to the truth, but it’s a sticky wicket, since according to the Mayo Clinic website, www.mayoclinic.com, nutrition surveys have shown that those who drink diet sodas don’t always eat healthier foods — or lose weight.Apparently the artificial sweeteners in diet food products may increase sugar cravings making it even harder to avoid temptation. So, if there isn’t a really compelling reason to drink diet soda let’s look at the low-calorie, healthy alternatives. Sometimes water just isn’t exciting or interesting enough. But then some people might say that about, for instance, asparagus — that is, until you sprinkle it with olive oil and salt and roast it in the oven. So maybe we need to jazz up the water a bit. Take a good ingredient and make it better. One thing I’m particularly fond of is the Emergen-C packets that can be purchased in most grocery stores, drugstores and health food stores. One package supplies 1,000 mg of vitamin C, plus 7 B vitamins, antioxidants and electrolytes. A friend of mine makes up a drink every morning, starting with a 14- or 16-ounce bottle of water to which she adds an Emergen-C packet and a splash of cranberry juice for a little added color and taste. She’s created a drink that is psychologically more compelling and interesting to imbibe without reducing the health benefits of drinking the water.Sometimes, you’ll find that you just want to pop open a can of fizzy soda. Go ahead. But remember that your body is made up mostly of water, and when you’re thirsty, and if you have the choice, go for the water.

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