Short Order: Next time you reach for a diet soda

Four of the ingredients found in soft drinks share the unhappy characteristic of leaching calcium out of bone.

Back in a 1999 column, I wrote about a teenager I knew who claimed she was "just addicted to Diet Coke." Slim and shapely, she had no excuse for this preference other than "coolness" and the influence of advertising. What makes me return to the subject is a dismaying sense that "diet" drinks have remained a fad among young people, who should be storing up all the calcium they can get to strengthen their bones. Four of the ingredients found in soft drinks - sodium (salt), phosphorus, sugar and caffeine - share the unhappy characteristic of leaching calcium out of bone. The last two also cause sharp changes in blood-sugar level, experienced as that famous quick-energy kick, followed by tiredness and a craving for more of those substances. In addition, aspartame, commonly added to diet drinks, may cause headaches and other problems. Since calcium loss is especially serious for young women, who have, nutritionists say, until their early 20s at most to lay down the bone density that will protect them from osteoporosis in later life, might it not be accurate to call diet drinks dangerous? I was thus gratified to see, on the Post's health page of March 2, the headline "Artificial sweeteners may cause weight gain," based on research published by the American Psychological Association. It seems that sweet foods provide a "salient orosensory stimulus" which strongly predicts that one is about to take in a lot of calories, and the body's ingestive and digestive reflexes gear up accordingly to deal with them. But when the sweetness is "false," as in diet drinks, and isn't followed by lots of calories, the system gets confused, interfering with the body's ability to regulate intake. These findings match emerging evidence that people who drink a lot of diet drinks are at higher risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome - a collection of medical problems such as abdominal fat, high blood pressure and insulin resistance which, in turn, increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Anyone for diet cola? HOW ABOUT making your own soft drink? This refreshing recipe yields about 6 cups. JUST LEMONADE juice of 6 lemons (1 cup) 3⁄4 cup sugar, or to taste 4 cups cold water 1 lemon, sliced ice cubes In a large pitcher, combine the lemon juice and the sugar; stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the water, lemon slices and ice cubes, and stir until well blended. Serve in tall glasses over ice. Variation: To make limeade, substitute fresh lime juice for the lemon juice. Or substitute orange juice for some of the lemon juice. MOST THURSDAYS, my colleague Esther Rosenfeld does a marathon. She can be found working in her kitchen very late indeed, preparing the family's meals for Shabbat. "At around 2 a.m.," she says, "I'll get a text message from my sister Ruth in Petah Tikva, asking, 'Are you still cooking?' Then I'll call her, and we'll have a lovely conversation while we're both chopping and stirring." Something Esther likes to make for Friday night dinner ("so I can put it on the Shabbat plata") is her version of a simple and popular dessert - with an unexpected addition: chocolate chips. I can't see anyone complaining about that. BAKED APPLES WITH A SURPRISE 1 Granny Smith ("Grand") apple per diner, washed brown sugar (demerara) raisins cinnamon chocolate chips Core but don't peel the apples. Stand them in a baking dish and fill their centers with the other ingredients, to taste, with the sugar on top, sprinkling it around the apples a bit as well. Make sure the chocolate chips are tucked well down (Esther: "You don't want them melting all over the outside"). Sprinkle a tablespoon of water over each apple so they don't stick. Bake at around 200°C for about 45 minutes. HOW'S THIS for a philosophy of life (not original, but then so few things are): Happiness resides in the small things. Working late one evening and having only a few crackers to eat, I remembered a can of sardines in my drawer. I opened the can carefully in the Post's kitchen - then noticed, to my frustration, several spots of oil dotting the front of my shirt. "I'll deal with them at home," I thought tiredly, blotting what I could with a paper towel. Next time I checked, the spots were gone. Turns out they were innocent water splashes. My feeling of happiness lasted for at least three minutes. [email protected]