People trying to slim down always have the same question for James Hill, executive director of the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado: “Should I drink diet soda?”

Hill didn’t have an answer until last week, when his team released the results of a study comparing the effects of water and “non-nutritive sweetened beverages” on participants in a weight-loss program. After 12 weeks, the group that had been consuming 24 ounces of diet drinks a day lost an average of 13 pounds. The group that had been sipping the same amount of water lost only an average of 9 pounds.

“I would have bet the farm on no difference,” says Hill, who says he’s skeptical of other research that’s indicated diet soda encourages weight gain. He suspects what tipped the scales was that the diet soda group had a no-calorie way to indulge cravings for sweets. (And to be eligible for the trial, funded by the American Beverage Association, participants had to be diet soda drinkers already.)

Chugging a Coke Zero won’t perform miracles, Hill cautions, but it can assist in calorie cutting. And he’s interested in finding similar tools that won’t make weight loss feel like such a, well, loss.

Hill visited D.C. last month to attend a “spice summit” hosted by the McCormick Science Institute (a research organization funded by the local corporation that produces Old Bay). He presented the results of another study, which demonstrated that diners were just as happy with a well-seasoned low-fat lunch as they were with a full-fat version.

There was also promising research from Cheryl Anderson, an associate professor at the University of California San Diego, who’d led a behavioral intervention in Baltimore. Her goal was to curb salt intake by teaching participants how to prepare meals relying on options such as smoked paprika, garlic, thyme and rosemary.

Instead of reaching automatically for the salt, they found alternatives that suited their tastes, Anderson says. It’s worth pursuing whether the same strategy can be effective for high-fat or high-sugar diets, too, she adds.

The takeaway lesson from this research is “weight loss doesn’t have to mean taste loss,” says dietitian Keith-Thomas Ayoob, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who attended the summit.

The findings, Ayoob says, are in line with what he suggests to everyone who needs to alter eating habits. He suggests spicing things up — sprinkling cinnamon and ginger on apples or stirring cayenne pepper into cottage cheese. (“That’s cottage cheese with testosterone,” he says.) Bored of carrots three nights in a row? Rotate between dill, garlic and mint, he adds.

Like Hill, Ayoob frequently finds himself fielding the same question: “Are you going to be the guy who takes away my fun?”

Now he feels more confident in answering, “No, I’m going to be the guy who shows you how to have fun in a different way.”

Further Review

The diet beverage study raised additional questions — such as, what are the long-term effects of drinking them? A follow-up study will examine these weight-loss program participants after a year.

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