Reducing the amount of sugar in one’s diet is a very effective way to improve overall health and promote weight loss. However, switching to artificial sweeteners as a way to avoid natural sugars may not be your best option. A recent analysis of multiple studies in The Canadian Medical Association Journal looked at the long-term associations of artificial sweetener consumption with weight and other factors. The observational studies reviewed demonstrated a correlation between consistent intake of artificial sweeteners with weight gain over time as well as increased risk for Type 2 Diabetes, metabolic syndrome and hypertension.
Avoiding weight gain and these other conditions are often why people choose to back off of sugar in the first place, so why are we seeing similar problems with these chemical sugar substitutes? While observational studies cannot prove that artificial sweeteners are directly causing these health problems, there are a number of reasons why increased intake of sugar alternatives such as Splenda, Equal and Stevia (yes, even the natural stuff!) is associated with an increased incidence of negative health outcomes.
The first reason has to do with the way your brain reacts to sweet foods. Your brain and taste receptors don’t differentiate between real sugar and chemical sugar and consuming either activates our brain’s reward centers which makes us want more sweet foods. Some researchers think that the lack of calories in artificial sweeteners keeps the body and brain from feeling satisfied from the sweetness causing only partial activation of the reward pathway and leaving us with even stronger cravings than regular sugar would. Overtime, this may lead to changes in eating habits – such as eating more and choosing higher-glycemic foods – which would cause weight gain and increase metabolic or cardiovascular risk.
Secondly, significant consumption of artificial sweeteners may change how you taste sweetness. These sweeteners tend to be much more intensely sweet than natural sugars and the more you consume them, eventually your taste receptors will adjust to accommodate the difference. This could make non-sweet foods – like whole grains and vegetables – taste bland and unappealing, again, leading to detrimental changes in eating habits.
So, while it would seem like using a zero calorie sweetener (or low calorie, such as Stevia) to quench sugar cravings and/or lose weight might be a good idea, the research is showing us a much different picture. Instead of helping to manage sugar cravings, they are instead increasing our dependence on sweet tasting foods and disrupting the way our brain responds to those foods which effectively derails our bodies’ natural appetite regulation. If we can’t trust our bodies’ innate wisdom to tell us when, what or how much to eat, we become vulnerable poor nutrition habits and the disease risks that go along with them.
Rather than replacing the sugar in your diet with artificial alternatives, a better option is to simply reduce your sugar intake over time. Cutting out sugar is difficult at first – your cravings will intensify when your reward pathway does not get stimulated like it is used to – but don’t be discouraged. Eventually, your body and brain will adjust and so will your cravings and appetite for sweetness until you naturally feel satisfied by all the other flavorful, nutrient-dense options that are part of a whole food diet.
By Flannery N., Bastyr student intern
- Leech, J. Can “diet” make you fat? The truth on artificial sweeteners. Authority Nutrition. May 29, 2017. https://authoritynutrition.com/artificial-sweeteners-and-weight-gain/
- McCarthy, K. Artificial sweeteners linked to weight gain over time, review of studies says. Abc News. July 17, 2017. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/artificial-sweeteners-weight-gain-time-review-studies/story?id=48676448
- Strawbridge, H. Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost? Harvard Health Blog. July 16, 2012. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030