Artificial Sweeteners Are Linked to Weight Gain and Other Health Issues

Here’s why your diet soda habit isn’t doing you any favors. (Photo: Getty Images)
Here’s why your diet soda habit isn’t doing you any favors. (Photo: Getty Images)

If you have weight-loss goals in mind but are craving sugar, you may be inclined to pick up a Diet Coke or a low-sugar dessert. But a new study confirms that opting for faux sweets does not do you any favors when it comes to staying slim or maintaining your health.

Researchers at the University of Manitoba’s George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation reviewed 37 studies, conducted for a decade or more, of over 400,000 people. All of the studies selected found that artificial or nonnutritive (zero calorie) sweeteners had negative impacts on the metabolism, gut bacteria, and appetite of the subjects. Furthermore, long-term consumption was linked to increased risk of weight gain, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and other health issues. It’s safe to assume that those are the opposite of what people are looking for when they pick up a sugar-free substitute.

“I think most people consuming artificial sweeteners assume these products will help them avoid weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease — and yet we are seeing the opposite association from multiple studies,” study author Meghan B. Azad tells Yahoo Beauty. “Not many studies have looked at the long-term effect of consuming artificial sweeteners. This is also surprising, given the large proportion of people consuming these products on a regular basis.”

Indeed, with 25 percent of children and 40 percent of adults in the U.S. consuming artificial sweeteners on a regular basis, plenty of unanswered questions still surround these substances. “This should inspire consumers to stop and think about whether they want to be consuming artificial sweeteners, especially on a regular basis, because we do not know if they are a truly harmless alternative to sugar,” says Azad. “People are generally consuming nonnutritive sweeteners believing they are a ‘healthy choice,’ but this may not be true.”

The researchers theorize that a contributing factor to the increased risk of weight gain may be the low-calorie sweeteners’ ability to cause cravings for other sweet things, leading to increased consumption of higher-calorie foods and creating the illusion for consumers that they have “saved“ calories by going for the “diet” option and can now indulge on sugary items.

Susan E. Swithers, whose 2013 research detailed in the journal Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism garnered similar results, agrees. Swithers also believes that low-calorie sweeteners can cause our bodies to react incorrectly when we consume real sugar, thus promoting weight gain. “Nonnutritive sweeteners may interfere with our ability to predict whether things that taste sweet actually have calories or not,” Swithers tells Yahoo Beauty. “This means that after using nonnutritive sweeteners, normal reactions to real sugar could be affected, making it harder to control our blood sugar or how much we’re eating.”

But could naturally low-calorie sweeteners like stevia, xylitol, and erythritol be better alternatives for dieters than chemical artificial sweeteners? Doctors say there isn’t enough information to know whether they’re safe. “We hoped to do subanalyses to separate out stevia (plant-based) from synthetic sweeteners, for example, to see if the effects were different,” Azad says of her recent research. “In the end, it was not possible to do this because so few studies evaluated stevia. It is a relatively new product, so I suspect there will be more research on it in the future. I think this is important because there is a perception that a ‘natural’ sweetener must be healthier. This could be true, but it may not be.”

Swithers, too, advises against natural nonnutritive sweeteners. “We have very little data on ‘natural’ sweeteners, especially over the long term,” she says. “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good. It’s probably fair to say that reducing intake of all sweeteners, regardless of their source, is the best plan for a healthy diet.”

Nutritionists, however, are divided on the matter. “People eat too much added sugar. Low-calorie sweeteners are a great way to reduce added sugars, whether for your coffee or tea, or in recipes,” nutritionist Keri Gans tells Yahoo Beauty. “Regulatory agencies around the world agree low-calorie sweeteners are safe, and this is supported by medical and health associations such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Cancer Society. I use Splenda every day in my iced coffee!”

Gans recommends erythritol, Reb-D, and stevia for those who prefer natural nonnutritive sweeteners, but dietitian-nutritionist Beth Warren believes that erythritol may have side effects such as upset stomach.

“I agree completely with the studies and have seen similar results over time throughout research and with my clients. I do not encourage using artificial sweeteners for those exact reasons. I see how they fully enhance the sweet tooth and cause more cravings and overconsumption of meals and snacks,” Warren tells Yahoo Beauty. “Once clients remove artificial sweeteners from the diet — and it typically has to be an ‘all or nothing approach’ — they experience a period of withdrawal in the form of headaches, irritability, and similar symptoms. Within a week or so, they report having fewer cravings for sweets. In other words, they were addicted to the artificial sweeteners and, once removed, were able to take better control of food choices and portions.”

Still, Warren advocates for natural sweeteners like stevia in moderation. “Most likely, it boils down to the amount being consumed in the diet,” she says. “You probably won’t have a negative effect using one packet of stevia in your coffee per day, but if you are popping in 15 pieces of sugar-free chewing gum with sorbitol, then you can trigger the adverse effects of bloating and stomach upset. In general, it is nice not to add any sweeteners in order to keep the sweet tooth low and appreciate the flavors of the actual food or drink.”

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