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The Soda Lover's Guide To Healthy Alternatives

A hot afternoon calls for a refreshing soda. But what if you're putting your health at risk with each sip?

two glasses of soda on a table outside

Here's your guide to healthy alternatives that will help you nip your soda cravings in the bud.

Why should you resist your soda cravings?
While sodas do have calories, they have little to no nutritional value. That essentially means they are "empty" calories, providing no sustenance for your body.

There's plenty of research to back up why soda isn't the most ideal beverage for your health. One study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found significant links between soda consumption and increased risks of obesity, diabetes and heart conditions. The results were consistent worldwide, including low- and middle-income countries.

Some research even links soda consumption to deteriorating brain health. The results from a recent study published in Alzheimer's & Dementia suggested that those who drink sugary beverages often experience memory issues or have significantly smaller brain volumes and hippocampuses, which are markers of preclinical cognitive decline.

In the words of Sudha Seshadri, a professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine: "These studies are not the be-all and end-all, but it's strong data and a very strong suggestion." She added, "It looks like there is not very much of an upside to having sugary drinks."

According to Healthline, these sugary beverages may be the most fattening component of modern human diets. Other negative health outcomes from consuming sodas include:

  • Increased belly fat.
  • Elevated blood sugar levels, which increase the risk of diabetes.
  • Enhanced insulin resistance that leads to metabolic syndrome.
  • Increased chance of sugar addiction.
  • Escalated health disease risk.
  • Decreased dental health.
  • Reduced bone health.

In other words, your favorite sodas don't really have a lot going for them when it comes to health. While the occasional soda won't cause too much harm, it's a good idea to avoid overloading on these sugary beverages.

What about diet soda?
Unfortunately, the answer to cutting down on soda intake isn't to convert your taste buds to their diet counterparts. Research shows that these so-called healthier versions of the originals can also be harmful. That's because they're made with artificial sweeteners instead of sugar, which can be dangerous for your body.

Research published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that diet soda intake can escalate obesity in adults over 65. In fact, the increase in waist circumference in diet soda drinkers was three times that of those who didn't consume the beverage.

A recent report from the Department of Psychological Sciences and Ingestive Behavior Research Center at Purdue University analyzed various studies that approached the health effects of consuming diet soda and discussed what the results mean. According to the researchers, artificial sweeteners trick your body into thinking it's eating the real thing. When you consume enough of the fake alternatives, your body hesitates to process real sugar because it's been fooled by artificial sweeteners so many times.

While more in-depth research is necessary to denounce diet sodas entirely, many health experts recommend avoiding frequent consumption of artificial sweeteners to be on the safe side. For instance, Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical director at Consumer Reports, offered this advice:

"In general, your best bet is to avoid regular and diet sodas altogether. They offer little nutritional benefit, and in some cases, diet sodas can cause headaches or make you overheat."

The good news is that there are plenty of other refreshing drinks to quell your thirst - and your soda cravings. Try one of these alternatives:

1. Sparkling water

If you love the fizzy carbonation of sodas, you don't have to give it up entirely. Sparkling water is simply a carbonated version of classic H2O, so it doesn't have any sugar or calories. However, you may want to choose a flavored option or add some fresh fruit to your glass, as plain sparkling water can taste like flavorless soda on its own. Berries, watermelon, lemon, lime and grapefruit pair well with this carbonated water, and you can even add some herbs to the mix, such as rosemary, basil and mint, for even more natural sweetness. Just remember to let the fruit and herbs sit in the water for a while, giving the flavors a chance to infuse.

sparkling water as an alternative to soda

Alternatively, you can mix sparkling water and juice for a drink that tastes eerily similar to soda. Be mindful of choosing juices without added sugar, as you may accidentally end up with a super sweet drink that is just as bad for you as soda. Regardless, try not to go overboard with the juice. Especially with tart juices, a little goes a long way for flavor. Everyday Health recommended mixing one part juice with three parts carbonated water for a light and bubbly drink.

You can also try tonic, club, seltzer and soda waters for drinks that mimic the carbonation of soda. Use the same flavoring techniques to add an extra boost to these fizzy waters. Check out Food Network's flavored water combinations for inspiration, including strawberry cucumber, orange fennel and raspberry orange.

2. Iced tea

Add a couple teaspoons of organic sugar to cold brews and you have yourself a sweet drink with far fewer calories than sodas. Plus, you can replace the sugar with honey for an even healthier sweetener. Tea also has caffeine in it, giving you the same boost of energy as many of your favorite fizzy sodas. You can add some ice to whichever teas you like most, including black, green and herbal. It even backs a healthy punch, with antioxidants that can promote heart health and help fight certain diseases, according to Health.com.

If you're new to the iced tea scene, try this classic recipe from Food Network to get started. When you're ready to experiment with more flavor, try a fruit-infused iced tea recipe from A Sweet Pea Chef, which serves up fresh combinations like lemon basil, blackberry mint, peach ginger and coconut lime.

3. Kombucha

This fermented tea has been consumed for years, but it's recently hit the shelves as a trendy alternative to sodas and other drinks. It has the powerful health benefits to back up its cool factor, as it's rich in probiotics and antioxidants. While probiotics aid in digestions and promote gut health, antioxidants work to kill harmful bacteria and fight disease.

    The fermentation process also gives kombucha the same fizziness present in your favorite sodas. It does have a unique flavor, so it's worthy trying a few different brands and flavors until you find the one you enjoy sipping on most. You can also make kombucha at home, by carefully brewing the tea and letting it ferment for seven to 10 days. Follow this kombucha tea guide from The Kitchn to get started.

    4. Homemade juices and smoothies

    Store-bought anything can be loaded with unnecessary sugars and extra calories, which is why it's worth trying your hand at making your own juices and smoothies so you can control the ingredients. You can use fresh fruits for natural flavors to replace the artificial sweeteners in soda. Another healthy bonus: These drinks help you achieve a healthy daily intake of fruits and vegetables - especially if they don't always make an appearance in your everyday meals. By increasing your consumption, you may even notice that your immune system is stronger, your skin is brighter and your spirits are higher.

    fresh smoothie as an alternative to soda

    As long as you have a juicer at home, you can essentially turn any fruit or vegetable into a refreshing drink. Here are some easy juicing recipes from Wholefully to get you started, made with readily available ingredients like cucumbers, apples, celery, beets, berries, ginger, bananas and kale.

    As far as smoothies go, you can get creative with combinations that fit your mood, seasonal changes and the current selection of ingredients in your kitchen. Get inspired by these healthy smoothie combinations packed with proteins and nutrients from Prevention, with blends like banana ginger, tropical papaya, apricot mango and berry vanilla.

    5. Fresh fizzy drinks

    Ditch the cans and high-fructose corn syrup and make your own sodas at home instead. There are plenty of ways to make homemade soda with fresh, natural ingredients that satisfy your cravings while also providing the healthy boost that traditional and store-bought sodas lack. Plus, you can experiment with flavor combinations that aren't available in the can.

    If you're a fan of citrus-flavored soda, you'll love this one: You can make a healthier version with sparkling or seltzer water. Simply throw some slices of lemon or lime in a glass of your preferred carbonated water, then add a dash of a calorie-free, low-carb sweetener. Perfect for summer, this peach lavender soda recipe from Eatwell101 calls for natural sweeteners like maple syrup, honey and fruit. Believe it or not, celery and mint make for a refreshing soda, as proven by this recipe from The Bojon Gourmet.

    You can also make refreshing spritzers, such as this pomegranate and ginger recipe from Drizzle & Drip. Combinations like this one not only curb your soda habit, but also pack a favorable health punch. Pomegranates are high in healthy antioxidants, while ginger aids in digestion and gut health.

    When the clock strikes 5 o'clock on Friday, you can even add a splash of alcohol to these flavored fizzy drinks for a healthier libation. Cheers to breaking your soda habit in exchange for some tasty alternatives!