Studies have shown that excessive consumption of sugar is associated with an increased likelihood of developing chronic kidney disease, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. But, does knowing this drive your temptation to switch to artificial sweeteners or any of those high-intensity sweeteners available in the market today?
By giving you the sweetness of sugar without any calories, these sugar substitutes seem like a magic bullet to combat obesity, and that they are going to fix all the things that sugar broke. However, even with certainly that cutting calories intake could help us maintain healthy body weight, and thereby reducing risk of heart disease, diabetes and myriad of diseases resulting from obesity, there is more to artificial sweeteners than just their effect on weight.
Artificial sweeteners are used in soft drinks, low-calorie snacks, and plenty of other food products with way fewer calories. Some like Steviol glycosides, a compound responsible for the sweet taste of the leaves of Steviol plants, are not processed in our guts the same way as sugar, because they basically have zero calories. Even some that are tens to thousands of times sweeter than sugar can be used to make low-calorie substitutes for our favorite sweets.
For years, researchers have been painstakingly studying the potential impacts using high-intensity sweeteners like Sweet ‘n Low or Splenda, and have laid bare some of the ill-effects. We can clearly see that most people switch from sugar to artificial sweeteners with the idea that they help with weight loss. But, a large meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials in 2014 proved it otherwise. It revealed that using artificial sweeteners instead of sugar resulted in weight loss of just 0.8 kg on average. Well, not that effective plan of action. But, why is that?
Artificial Sweeteners Confuse The Parts Of The Brain That Control Appetite
Your body and brain respond to sweetness in a complex way. When you eat something sweet, your body receives a bunch of calories (energy) you need to survive. But with artificial sweeteners, you will not be getting any energy boost and this leaves the parts of the brain that regulate hunger and fullness confused. And what this means is that you will not know when to stop eating, so you end up eating more.
We Like To Fool Ourselves
People using artificial sweeteners tend to make up for the lost calories through other sources. For example, if you’re drinking diet soda, you’d be like “It’s okay I can have cake”. I am not saying you’d be doing that, but there are people with that kind of mentality, and this counteracts weight loss and other health benefits.
Artificial Sweeteners Can Affect Intestinal Bacteria
One of the most important reasons why using artificial sweeteners doesn’t translate into weight loss is that they can affect intestinal bacteria, which play an important role in how you process food.
A 2014 study in mice showed that saccharin (artificial sweetener) can induce change in gut microbial activity and also decrease insulin sensitivity – a risk factor for diabetes.
Other sweeteners approved for use in the United States and the European Union such as aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium-k, advantame, and cyclamate were found to be toxic to gut microbes.
While similar study hasn’t been performed on human, observational studies yielded pretty much the same results.
In 2017, a study of over 64,000 women found avid consumers of any type of artificial sweetener to be about 21 percent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Of course, sweetener consumption is linked to diabetes, but the reason centers at people knowing they have a higher risk for diabetes that drives their sweetener use – and not because the sweeteners are causing diabetes.
While the link between sugary drinks and type 2 diabetes is already well-established, the connection between diet drinks and diabetes disappeared when they made adjustments to factors like the starting weight of the participants involved. Similar statistical analysis to control for BMI and several other major risk factors for diabetes was performed in 2017 on women – and the link between sweeteners and diabetes remained as strong as ever.
Many scientists argue that the results from such analysis are highly improbable – and “math cannot completely remove the influence of other risk factors, a concept known as residual confounding.” Because, it’s likely that the 2017 study which showed significant increase in diabetes risk from sweetened drinks involved participants that were obese already. This hardship of performing nutritional science in humans is one of the reasons this heated scientific debate about artificial sweeteners is not going away any time soon.
Also, the fear that artificial sweeteners like saccharin cause cancer has already been eliminated. But considering their side effects, you should not just go hog wild with them.
Well, here is one thing we can all agree on: artificial sweeteners are not a magic bullet. And if you want to lead a healthy life, you should limit using both sugar and sweeteners in your diet. Also, apart from their adverse effect on health, artificial sweeteners are being regarded as emerging pollutants in the environment.