If you’re watching your weight, you might be a fan of the colorful artificial sweetener packets at the coffee shop or grocery store. After all, you know processed sugars have been linked to everything from obesity to heart disease.
But if you’ve been relying on Equal, Sweet’N Low, or Splenda, you may want to rethink your strategy.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says artificial sweeteners are safe, a growing number of recent studies show they really don’t help you lose weight and link them to serious health problems. Here’s the bittersweet truth on saccharin, sucralose and aspartame:
1. Using them raises your risk for weight gain and diabetes.
It seems like simple math: a 0-calorie soda will help you reach your goal weight faster than one with 150 calories. But it not that simple.
A 14-year French study tracked more than 66,000 women, monitoring how many sugar-sweetened drinks, artificially sweetened drinks and fruit juice they drank. Researchers found that the women who drank the most sugar- and artificially sweetened drinks had higher risk for type 2 diabetes. Plus, the women who drank more artificially sweetened drinks were twice as likely to be obese. A 2015 update to a Texas study that focused on adults over 65 found the same was true: as people drank more diet soda, they gained more weight — especially around their waists. In fact, the regular diet soda drinkers gained three times as much belly fat as non-users during the nine-year study, while occasional users gained twice as much.
2. Intensely sweet foods makes you crave more and more sugar.
“Research does show that the more sweet things we eat — whether that’s fruit or agave — the more we crave it,” says Karyn Duggan, a One Medical nutritionist. “There’s evidence about aspartame and a few other artificial sweeteners to show they throw off hormonal regulation and that makes it more difficult to listen to our natural hunger cues.”
Fake sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are exponentially sweeter than sugar, so they kick sugar and carb cravings into overdrive. Since nothing found in nature matches the intensity of artificial sweeteners, you’re on a perpetual quest that makes it hard to enjoy the natural sweetness of fruit and other foods.
“This can lead us to overindulge in calorie-rich, sweet foods,” says Jamie Mortimer, a registered dietician with Rise.
Plus, artificially sweetened foods and drinks don’t satisfy like eating a brownie made from grandma’s recipe. So that diet soda not leaves you feeling unfulfilled, but then you might reach for Häagen-Dasz later.
3. They can mess up your gut bacteria and cause metabolic problems.
The 100 trillion bacteria inhabiting your gut significantly impact everything from your digestion and immune function to your mental health. And according to a study recently published in Nature, artificial sweeteners can have harmful effects on the balance of your gut bacteria.
When rodents were fed aspartame, sucralose and saccharin, changes in their gut bacteria led to a spike in blood sugar. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel wanted to see if the same thing happened in humans, so they looked at the blood sugar and gut bacteria of 381 people. They found that people who ate large amounts of the artificial sweeteners had metabolic issues including higher body weight.
Next, the researchers did a one-week test with seven young healthy people who didn’t normally use any artificial sweeteners by giving them the maximum FDA-recommended daily dose of saccharin for six days. At the end of the week, four subjects had elevated blood sugar levels and changes in their gut flora, while three people showed no effects. More research is needed, but the results indicate that at least for some people, there may be an association between gut microbiome problems and artificial sweetener use.
So What Should You Use Instead?
Even if you’re watching your weight, the best sugar solution for non-diabetics may be small amounts of natural sweeteners, such as sugar or honey, as a treat.
If you’re looking for an alternative, both Andrew Weil, MD and others including Michael Greger, MD say stevia may be a good option — as long as it’s used in small amounts, like a couple beverages per day.
Stevia is a leafy green herb native to South America, where it’s called sweet leaf. In Paraguay, the leaves have been chewed and used to sweeten drinks for centuries with no documented health effects. It’s been used widely in Japan as well since the 1970s. Here in the U.S., the FDA lists one of stevia’s main components — steviol glycosides — as “generally recommended as safe.“
A 2010 study in the journal Appetite tested what effect sugar, aspartame or stevia might have on test subjects’ blood sugar and insulin levels. Those values were much lower 20 minutes after a stevia snack and a meal, compared to the same meal paired with sucrose or aspartame.
If you’re curious about stevia, seek out a more natural form of 100 percent organic stevia, that doesn’t have extra “natural flavors” or fillers like sugar alcohols added.
And when you do want a sweet treat, first eat a meal with fiber and fat, to slow the absorption of the sugar. Then savor the real flavors in that chocolate cake or cookie, and treat it like a rare indulgence.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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