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Zero Calorie Drinks: Are They Really Healthy?

By: Erin Coleman, B.S. - Nutritional Science, R.D., L.D.,

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

zero calorie drinks

You might be wondering if zero-calorie drinks are the best choice, as they appear to be a good option for healthy weight management.

However, many of these drinks aren't as beneficial as you might think, as artificial ingredients in calorie-free drinks may cause more harm than good.

Knowing which zero-calorie drinks to choose and which to avoid is the key to staying healthy, maintaining an ideal weight, and keeping your chronic disease risks low.

Keep reading to learn which zero-calorie drinks you should choose … and which ones to avoid!

Are energy drinks bad for you? Find out the surprising truth!

What Are the Drawbacks of Zero Calorie Drinks?

The problem with many zero-calorie drinks is the additives they contain.

Some additives are worse than others, which is why knowing the facts about calorie-free drinks is a must.

The ingredients below may lurk in many of your favorite zero-calorie drinks.

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners taste sweet like sugar, but they are calorie-free.

Examples of common artificial sweeteners include:

  • Neotame
  • Acesulfame-K (Sweet One)
  • Saccharin (Sweet and Low)
  • Aspartame (Equal)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)

Many diet drinks contain artificial sweeteners as ingredients, as a way to make drinks taste sweet without the extra calories.

In theory, this reduces your risk of unplanned weight gain or even helps you lose weight.

However, many studies show that artificial sweeteners are actually linked with decreased satiety (fullness), higher food intakes, and weight gain.

One reason is that artificial sweeteners affect your body's insulin levels and the good vs. bad bacteria in your gut.

Having the right balance of good gut bacteria offers numerous health benefits, including:

  • Better digestion
  • Improved nutrient absorption
  • Lower risk of obesity
  • Stronger immune system
  • Healthier skin
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Fewer memory problems
  • Better oral health

Another reason that artificial sweeteners promote obesity has to do with the way your body reacts to tasting something sweet.

It associates sweet tastes with energy, and artificial sweeteners trick the body into getting ready for digestion.

Sweet tastes stimulate the release of insulin and cravings for real sugar, junk foods, and other high-calorie foods.

Therefore, it's best to skip artificial sweeteners altogether.

That means nixing zero-calorie drinks that contain them when possible.

Don't worry if you splurge on artificially sweetened drinks every now and then, but avoid consuming them on a regular basis if possible.

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Artificial Colors

Artificial colors are additives present in many types of flavored drinks, including diet colas and many low-calorie sports drinks, but these ingredients aren't great for you either.

Studies show that artificial food dyes have been linked with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hives, asthma, depression, irritability, and tumor growth in children.

Examples of artificial colors to look for on ingredient labels include:

  • Blue No. 1 (brilliant blue)
  • Blue No. 2 (indigo carmine)
  • Red No. 3 (erythrosine)
  • Red No. 40 (Allura red)
  • Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine)
  • Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow)
  • Caramel color
  • Cochineal extract
  • Carmine dye

While these additives are approved by the food and drug administration (FDA), less is better when it comes to artificial colors and other artificial ingredients.

Artificial Flavors

Artificial flavors are man-made, so as you can imagine they aren't necessarily something you want to put (in large amounts) in your body.

In fact, studies show that consuming artificial flavorings in excess may cause harm in lab animals.

Natural flavors are the better option, generally speaking.

However, some natural flavors are similar in composition to artificial flavorings and can cause allergic reactions in some people.

The fewer additives the better when choosing zero-calorie drinks and diet foods.

Other Additives

Chances are if you've never heard of an ingredient listed on the food label of your favorite zero-calorie drink, it's likely an additive that isn't so great for your body (especially in large amounts).

In addition to artificial sweeteners and colors, preservatives and other additives sometimes present in zero-calorie drinks include:

  • Citric acid
  • Malic acid
  • Phosphoric acid
  • Potassium benzoate
  • Potassium sorbate

Studies show that some acids added to diet drinks are linked with tooth enamel erosion, which can cause problems for your teeth and oral health.

Acidic drinks may also contribute to heartburn and acid reflux, and allergic reactions are a concern for some people who consume additives.

Potassium sorbate and other additives can sometimes get contaminated with mercury, arsenic, lead, or other contaminants so it's best to limit your intake as much as possible.

Examples of Zero Calorie Drinks to Avoid

Because they contain artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, artificial flavors, or other additives, limit the following types of zero-calorie drinks when possible:

Diet Sodas

Zero calorie diet sodas, such as diet colas, are often loaded with artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, or other additives.

Studies show that an increased intake of diet soda is linked with abdominal obesity and a higher risk of heart disease.

So, while calorie-free sodas might seem like a convenient way to cut calories, they aren't beneficial for your health or managing your ideal body weight.

Nix both diet and regular sodas when possible, as regular sodas are loaded with added sugar and empty calories.

However, don't be hard on yourself if you have a soda every now and then.

Diet Sweet Teas

If you drink diet sweet tea, check the nutrition facts label to find out if the brand you choose contains artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, artificial flavors, or other additives because many of them do.

Look for calorie-free or low-calorie teas that aren't sweetened, or choose those that contain a small amount of Stevia or monk fruit in place of artificial sweeteners.

Also, beware of preservatives found in some diet sweet teas.

Always check the ingredient list on your favorite tea label to ensure you're making the best choice for your body.

Artificially Flavored Carbonated Drinks

In addition to diet sodas, many other flavored carbonated drinks contain artificial sweeteners, preservatives, or other additives.

Carbonated drinks can also cause bloating and gas and are sometimes associated with increased food intake.

If you find carbonated drinks that are flavored with a small amount of fruit juice, fruit extract, Stevia, monk fruit, herbs, or aren't flavored at all, they may be an OK zero-calorie drink option.

However, regular water is usually the better choice.

Some studies show that both regular and diet carbonated drinks alter hunger hormones and cause rats to eat more and gain weight faster than rats who drink non-carbonated drinks.

Studies in humans found similar results, showing that carbonation in drinks can induce weight gain because of hormone fluctuations and increases in hunger.

If you do choose zero-calorie carbonated drinks, pick those without sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, or other artificial ingredients.

Choose bubbly waters flavored with natural ingredients derived from fruits, fruit juices, or herbs.

Zero Calorie Sports Drinks

While zero-calorie sports drinks (Gatorade Zero, Propel, etc.), are free from calories and added sugar, they often contain artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, preservatives, artificial flavors, or other additives.

If you consume sports drinks for energy during prolonged or intense sports training, zero-calorie drinks might replace lost electrolytes (potassium, magnesium, sodium, etc.), but they don't provide the carbohydrates and energy needed to maximize athletic performance.

If you drink sports or juice drinks for energy before, during, or after intense exercise, choose those containing calories and carbs in addition to electrolytes.

Are Some Zero Calorie Drinks Healthy?

While many zero-calorie drinks aren't the best choice for your health, some of them are!

Consider the following zero-calorie beverage options for you and your family to stay hydrated, healthy, and reduce your risk of unplanned weight gain:

Ice Water

Ice water is one of the best zero-calorie drinks you can choose.

Consume filtered water whenever possible or have your tap water tested for high levels of contaminants.

Drink water that's cold to make it more palatable and enhance its absorption.

Women need about 12 cups of water or other fluids daily to maintain an exceptional health, while most men need about 16 cups.

You might have higher daily fluid requirements if you sweat a lot throughout the day or during workouts.

Find out the easiest way to drink more water every day!

Fruit-Infused Waters

If you prefer flavored water, you can easily flavor it yourself at home for a very low cost!

Simply cut up lemon, watermelon, other chunks of fruit, cucumber, mint, sage, or other herbs and mix these ingredients with ice water.

Get creative with your ingredient choices or consider fruit-infused water recipes!

Electrolyte-Infused Waters

Some calorie-free electrolyte drinks are good for you.

They contain vitamins, minerals, sodium, and other electrolytes that replenish lost stores due to excessive sweating and prolonged exercise.

But avoid sweetened vitamin waters and other electrolyte drinks that contain sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, or other additives.

Choose electrolyte waters with all-natural flavorings or no flavor.

Or, simply add electrolyte mix to water and drink it during or after long workouts!

Unsweetened Tea

Drinking unsweetened tea offers numerous health and wellness benefits.

Tea contains some calories, but often fewer than 5 calories per serving so it doesn't contribute to weight gain.

Studies show that tea, particularly green tea, appears to protect against obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.

Tea contains disease-fighting antioxidants and many teas offer caffeine, which can boost mental alertness, athletic performance, energy, and your body's metabolism.

Find out why you should be drinking tea throughout the day!

Unsweetened Coffee

Like unsweetened tea, unsweetened coffee contains very few calories.

It provides disease-fighting antioxidants and energy while reducing your risk of obesity and common chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Studies show that drinking coffee is also linked with reductions in body fat.

Avoid sweetening your coffee with sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Instead, add a tiny bit of Stevia or other natural sweeteners, cinnamon, nutmeg, other spices, a small amount of unsweetened cocoa powder, or other naturally sourced flavors to enhance the taste of coffee without the extra calories.

You can also add cream, unsweetened almond milk, other plant milks, or protein powder to your morning coffee.

Try these 5 healthy drinks to lose weight at home!

Naturally Flavored Zero Calorie Drinks

Rather than choosing drinks loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners, look for zero-calorie drinks containing no sweeteners or small amounts of the following natural sweeteners and flavorings:

  • Monk fruit extract
  • Other fruit extracts
  • Stevia
  • Erythritol
  • Herbs
  • Spices

These flavorings are naturally sourced and aren't harmful to your health, especially when consumed in moderation.

Learn how to reduce sugar addiction and recognize sugar addiction symptoms!

Which Drinks with Calories Are Good for Me?

You don't have to choose calorie-free drinks to maintain exceptional health and wellness.

In fact, consuming drinks with calories and essential nutrients is often beneficial for you and your family.

Examples of calorie-containing drinks that are good for you include:

  • 100% juice
  • Milk
  • Almond milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Other plant milks
  • Low-sugar protein shakes
  • Plain Kefir
  • Coffee with natural flavorings
  • Unsweetened tea
  • Kombucha

Drinking calories isn't a problem, as long as the calories you put into your body come from mainly whole-food sources.

Get a good balance of nutritious, calorie-containing drinks plus zero-calorie drinks to maximize your health, meet daily nutritional needs, keep energy levels high, and minimize your chronic disease risks.

These 7 principles of nutrition are always true, no matter what your diet consists of. Find out what you should and SHOULDN’T be eating.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that many zero-calorie drinks contain additives that aren't so healthy for you, especially when consumed in excess.

However, there are plenty of nutritious zero-calorie and low-calorie drinks you can choose from to prioritize health and wellness.

And remember: don't be too hard on yourself if you have an artificially sweetened drink or sugar-sweetened beverage every now and then.

Moderation is key and having a cheat day now and then is perfectly fine for most healthy adults.

Add in healthy drinks that contain calories to keep energy levels high and meet your daily nutritional needs.

In addition to choosing healthy zero-calorie drinks, consider trying the Fit Mother Project plan for moms of all ages.

The program has helped hundreds of thousands of busy parents lose weight, maintain healthy weights, gain energy, have better workouts, burn fat, and gain muscle definition.

Fit Mother Project plans offer additional benefits like reduced disease risks, healthy habit creation, online health coaching support, social support, being a good role model for your kids, and having a longer life expectancy!

Along with choosing nutritious zero-calorie drinks, try the free Fit Mom Jumpstart to get started with your health journey today!

Erin Coleman

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian with over 15 years of freelance writing experience.

She graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in nutritional science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and completed her dietetic internship at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Prior to beginning her career in medical content writing, Erin worked as Health Educator for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Internal Medicine.

Her published work appears on hundreds of health and fitness websites, and she’s currently working on publishing her first book! Erin is a wife, and a Mom to two beautiful children.

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*Please know that weight loss results & health changes/improvements vary from individual to individual; you may not achieve similar results. Always consult with your doctor before making health decisions. This is not medical advice – simply very well-researched info on zero-calorie drinks.

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