They may be calorie-free, but diet sodas can still make you fat, apparently. A 10-year study by the University of Texas, San Antonio has found that diet sodas can actually make you gain weight, especially in the stomach area, the London Daily Mail reports. The beverages and the artificial sweeteners they contain may increase a craving for sweets, distort appetite and even damage brain cells, according to Professor Helen Hazuda of the university's Health Science Center.

The study, which involved nearly 500 men and women, found that even ingesting small quantities of diet soda had these effects. The results showed that the waistlines of those who consumed diet drinks expanded 70 percent faster than those who eschewed them in favor of other beverages, including regular sodas. Even more alarming, frequent users — defined as those who drink two or more cans a day — saw a 500 percent greater increase in girth, Hazuda told an American Diabetes Association conference audience. Consumption of diet sodas also increased blood sugar levels over time. The results remained the same even when other factors such as exercise, social class, education and smoking were factored in.

The researchers speculate that there are several factors involved in the weight gain. They think the artificial sweeteners in diet drinks distort appetite, making people crave extra-sweet foods, while the lack of real sugar keeps consumers from feeling full. The artificial sweeteners may also damage brain cells involved in feelings of satiety.

A second study by some of the same researchers carried out on mice linked the artificial sweetener aspartame to the kind of pancreas damage that occurs early in diabetes.

Hazuda said her study was the fourth large-scale piece of research to link diet drinks with ill consequences. She recommends that people stop consuming diet sodas completely, suggesting water or lemonade instead. Even drinking regular full-sugar soda is better, she said.

LA Weekly