Sugar Substitutes Don’t Help With Weight Loss, WHO Report Finds

Sugar Substitutes Don’t Help With Weight Loss, WHO Report Finds

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  • A recent report from the World Health Organization advises against sugar-substitute use for weight loss.

  • The review found that the use of non-sugar sweeteners “does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children.”

  • Nutritionists explain what this new report means for you.

If you are trying to lose weight, there are many diets that encourage you to cut back on sugar. And if you have a sweet tooth, you’ve likely explored subbing sugar for artificial sweeteners. But according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO), consuming popular sugar substitutes may not help with weight loss.

The recent WHO report looked at over 283 studies and the effects of consuming sugar substitutes such as acesulfame K, advantame, aspartame, cyclamate, neotame, saccharin, steviol glycosides, sucralose.

The review found that the use of non-sugar sweeteners, or NSS, “does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children.” WHO also concluded that higher NSS intake was associated with increased body weight, and increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and all-cause mortality.

Wait, why shouldn’t you use sugar substitutes if you’re trying to lose weight?

Sugar substitutes are helpful in replacing both sugar and calories in sweets and drinks, which can be useful for people losing weight, says Melissa Prest, D.C.N., R.D.N., national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board. “However, sugar substitutes alone will not lead to weight loss without making other changes like increasing activity and how you make [up] your plate.”

There are still no ideal shortcuts for losing weight with long-term benefits, says Jackie Newgent, R.D.N., C.D.N., plant-forward nutritionist, chef, and author of The Plant-Based Diabetes Cookbook. “If non-sugar sweeteners or ‘sugar substitutes’ were the answer to weight loss, most of us would be pretty lean right now.”

What should people who are at risk for type 2 diabetes or trying to lose weight do instead?

If you are trying to lose weight or if you’re at risk for type 2 diabetes, there are still options for satisfying your sweet tooth while curbing sugar and artificial sweeteners. According to Prest, you can “look at ways to swap out refined carbohydrates for whole grains, and swap sugar-sweetened foods like cereal and yogurt with unsweetened versions.” We tend to do larger portions of carbohydrate-rich foods like rice, pasta, and other grains on the plate, Prest adds, so try to swap half of those foods with lower carbohydrate vegetables.

If you’re looking for sweetness, Newgent advises to first determine if fruit, fruit puree, or 100% fruit juice can be the answer you’re looking for—at mealtime, snack time, or in your cooking or baking. But, this can also raise blood glucose in those with type 2 diabetes, and does contain natural sugars. And, it’s important to note that people with diabetes were not included in this review.

Beyond dietary changes, don’t forget to move your body for 30 to 60 minutes a day and get enough sleep at night, reminds Prest. “Adults should be getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.”

What does this new WHO report mean?

The WHO recommendation is conditional, meaning that the evidence included in the statement, which was not all of the research that has been done on sugar substitutes and weight loss, showed that there were little to no benefits in using sugar substitutes for weight loss, notes Prest. “However, the evidence used to make their statement may not be strong enough or of good quality for the recommendation to become a public health policy without review and comment from stakeholders and key consultants—meaning, there still needs to be a review of the statement by others before recommending that everyone reduce or stop using sugar substitutes.”

A key takeaway from the WHO recommendation is for people to reduce added sugar intake by improving the overall quality of their diet, and not just by using sugar substitutes in place of sugar in highly processed foods, Prest continues. “If the focus is only on replacing sugar with sugar substitutes and no other changes are made, like using whole grains in place of refined grains or more vegetables on the plate, then there is not much change or improvement to the quality of the diet.”

It’s also important to note that this WHO report is not a “license” to eat more sugar, says Newgent. “It’s select evidence that sugar replacers may not be as helpful as people think.”

The bottom line

There is a lot of good quality research that shows that sugar substitutes can be helpful for some groups of people, notes Prest. Still, “Don’t rely on sugar substitutes as a way to improve your diet quality—everyone should be finding ways to reduce sugars in their diet by choosing more minimally processed, whole foods and less highly refined and ultra-processed foods.”

Newgent agrees, saying that you still need to be mindful of overconsuming added sugars, of course. And as far as the research goes, evidence continues pointing to enjoyment of “real” or “wholesome” food—especially plenty of plants—as the best way to be healthfully nourished and stay at a healthy weight, she adds.

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