AURORA, COLO. — Diet soft drink consumption has been linked to weight gain in recent years, but new research published in the June issue of Obesity suggests the beverages may aid in weight loss efforts.

The 12-week clinical study, which was funded by the American Beverage Association, compared the effects of water and diet beverages on weight loss within a behavioral weight loss program. Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in Aurora and Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education in Philadelphia randomly assigned 303 participants to one of two groups: those allowed to drink diet sodas, teas and flavored waters; and those in a control group that drank water only. Both groups followed identical diet and exercise programs during the study.

Participants who drank diet beverages lost an average of 13 lbs, 44% more than the control group, which lost an average of 9 lbs. Sixty-four per cent in the diet beverage group lost at least 5% of their body weight, which compared with 43% of the control group.

“This study clearly demonstrates diet beverages can in fact help people lose weight, directly countering myths in recent years that suggest the opposite effect — weight gain,” said James O. Hill, Ph.D., executive director of the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, and a co-author of the study. “In fact, those who drank diet beverages lost more weight and reported feeling significantly less hungry than those who drank water alone. This reinforces if you’re trying to shed pounds, you can enjoy diet beverages.”

Additionally, those in the diet beverage group showed greater improvements in serum levels of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, as well as a significant reduction in serum triglycerides. Both groups reduced waist circumference and blood pressure.

“There’s so much misinformation about diet beverages that isn’t based on studies designed to test cause and effect, especially on the Internet,” said John C. Peters, co-author of the study and the chief strategy officer of the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. “This research allows dieters to feel confident that low- and no-calorie sweetened beverages can play an important and helpful role as part of an effective and comprehensive weight loss strategy.”

Recent research supports the idea that diet drinks help with weight loss. Two previous peer-reviewed studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by researchers from the University of North Carolina found participants who drank diet beverages were more likely to lose 5% of body weight after six months than those who drank water only. The group that drank diet beverages also reported eating fewer sweets, suggesting the consumption of diet beverages may not fuel cravings for sugary food and drinks.

But prior studies have linked a daily diet soda habit to increases in waist circumference, as well as a higher risk for heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular problems in older women.

Beverage makers, including PepsiCo, the Coca Cola Co., and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, have reported an accelerated decline in diet soft drinks over the past year as consumers increasingly avoid artificial sweeteners.