As sugar has become demonized for its contributions to weight gain and health issues, many people have turned to alternate artificial sweeteners. While these sweeteners may reduce your overall sugar intake, they may not be as healthy as you think. Read on to learn how artificial sweeteners can actually cause more weight gain.
Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Gain
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic compounds that are formulated to be significantly sweeter than sucrose (regular table sugar). This allows you to use relatively small amounts of artificial sweetener to impart a favorable taste without adding the equivalent caloric value of traditional sugar. This should ideally prevent weight gain and other consequences of increased calories. However, in practice, artificial sweeteners may not be as healthy as you think.
Artificial Sweeteners Increase Overeating
While scientists do agree that artificial sugar substitutes lower the energy density of foods, these substitutes also tend to separate energy and sweetness, which may interrupt the body’s ability to accurately assess caloric intake. This can potentially lead to overeating.
In a rat study, subjects that were fed saccharin-sweetened foods gained more weight and took in more calories than rats fed sugar-sweetened food. Research also found that low-calorie sweeteners had no effect on the rats’ intake of sugar-sweetened food in later meals.1
While artificial sweeteners and sugars both activate the receptors for sweetness in the tongue, they activate different parts of the brain. Studies in humans also found that low-calorie sweeteners are not as powerful as sugar in stimulating areas of the brain associated with expectation and satisfaction. In other words, sugar is better at turning off the desire for more sweet foods. This all suggests that artificial sugar substitutes may actually contribute to cravings for sweets and cause overeating.1
Artificial Sweeteners May Affect How Your Body Burns Calories
Along with their effects on overeating, artificial sweeteners may have a direct impact on your metabolism. Sweet tastes usually predict high calorie foods and generate internal responses that allow you to efficiently use those calories. However, artificial sweeteners provide a sweet food without the associated calories, which may weaken the physiological response involved in burning calories.
In the rat study, the animals fed saccharin had a lower increase in core body temperature after eating naturally sweetened, high-calorie foods. This diminished thermic response resulted in the rats eating more and suggests that the rats burned calories less efficiently.1
Artificial Sweeteners Contribute to Glucose Intolerance
Studies have found that non-caloric artificial sweeteners may significantly contribute to glucose intolerance. Glucose is a type of sugar that is the most basic source of energy for all living creatures. In a study, researchers supplemented the drinking water of mice with formulations of aspartame, sucrose, or saccharin. At the end of this 11-week study, the mice given the non-caloric artificial sweeteners exhibited significant glucose intolerance compared to the control groups, which included mice given sucrose, glucose, or plain water. Glucose intolerance results in high blood sugar, which may develop into type 2 diabetes.2
Non-caloric artificial sweeteners are usually excreted from the body unchanged, which suggests that they are metabolically inert and present no physiological effect. However, the results of this study suggest that saccharin may have a direct effect on the gut microbiome, resulting in glucose intolerance. Byproducts from the degradation of aspartame may also have effects on the gut microbiome.2
Artificial Sweeteners and Your Health
Artificial sweeteners may have a profound impact on your overall health, even beyond weight gain. In a meta-analysis of 11,774 citations, including seven trials and 30 cohort studies, researchers found that artificial sweetener usage was associated with increases in body mass index, waist circumference, and obesity. This meta-study also found an association between artificial sweetener usage and an increased risk of
- Metabolic syndrome
- Type 2 diabetes
- Cardiovascular events3
Artificial Sweeteners or Sugar?
Along with stevia, a natural low-calorie sweetener, the FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners:
Choosing between artificial sweeteners and natural sugars isn’t an easy task. Sugar itself is not the problem. In fact, foods containing natural sugars, like whole fruits, are also dense in nutrients and high in fiber while maintaining a low glycemic load. The problem comes with the total accumulation of refined sugars that are commonly added to junk food, sweets, and highly processed foods common to the Western diet.4
Making the right choice often comes down to moderation. Using artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners in your diet may help to reduce the total sugars added to your diet, but completely substituting all sugars with artificial sweeteners can contribute to weight gain, glucose intolerance, and the other health issues outlined above. Instead of relying entirely on sweeteners and sugar substitutes, reconsider your overall diet. Instead of sugary drinks and highly processed foods, incorporate more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains into your diet to maintain better health and reduce your sugar intake.