3 Benefits of Cutting Back on Artificial Sweeteners

by Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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3 Benefits of Cutting Back on Artificial Sweeteners

The message for us to cut back on sugar is loud and clear. The average American eats more than 70 pounds of it per person, per year. For many, the solution to cut back is a simple one: Swap sugar-filled beverage and food choices with calorie-free, artificially sweetened options. The American Heart Association suggests replacing sugary foods and beverages with artificial sweeteners as a way “to limit calories and achieve or maintain a healthy weight.”

Artificial sweeteners lend sweetness without adding extra calories, but they may not be as beneficial as you’d think. Here are three reasons to think twice before chucking back a can of diet pop:

1. You don’t feel fully satisfied on artificial sweeteners.

There’s a growing body of evidence to support the idea that people who consume artificial sweeteners may actually end up consuming more calories than those who don’t. Researchers at Yale University School of Medicine discovered that artificial sweeteners don’t signal the release of dopamine, an appetite-controlling hormone. Dopamine is a reward-signaling chemical, meaning it leaves us with feelings of fullness and satisfaction. Artificial sweeteners don’t satisfy the appetite with calories, says Dr. David Ludwig, professor of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. Diet soda might quench your thirst and your immediate craving for something sweet, but it won’t reduce your appetite. Artificial sweeteners may trick the body into thinking it’s about to receive more calories than it actually does, causing people to then compensate for lack of satiety with more food later in the day.

2. You develop a hyperactive sweet tooth.

In addition, frequent use of artificial sweeteners “may limit tolerance for more complex tastes,” explains Ludwig. Think about it: Artificial sweeteners are 200 to 600 times sweeter than sugar. The more of them you eat, the more your body starts to crave these hyper-sweet foods because you develop a higher tolerance for sweetness. Over time, healthy foods like whole-grain products, fruits and vegetables lose their luster. Even naturally sweet foods (think: carrots, apples, beets) don’t taste nearly as sweet, nor satisfying, to people who regularly consume artificially sweetened foods.

3. You’re probably changing your gut bacteria in an unfavorable way.

Last year, a team of Israeli scientists found that artificial sweeteners (including aspartame, sucralose and saccharin) may contribute to obesity and diabetes because it disrupts the gut microbiome; a collection of bacteria that help digest food, absorb nutrients, and maintain the inner lining of your digestive system. They influence our risk of obesity, regulate our immune system, and provide us with valuable nutrients.

The study looked at the microbiome and found that artificial sweeteners disrupted the bacterial balance of the digestive system in mice, increasing blood sugar and boosting the growth of a certain gut bacteria that triggered fat storage. There are no calories tied to the fake sugars—leaving nothing to digest—so they pass directly into the gut, affecting the millions of microbes that live there. And while authors of the study caution that the findings are preliminary (mice, after all, do not behave like people and results do not necessarily reflect what happens in humans), many scientists are now interested in the effect of artificial sweeteners on the human microbiome.

So what’s the takeaway?

While artificial sweeteners might save you a handful of calories every now and then, it is important to look at the types of foods and beverages that contain these sweeteners as a whole. Most are highly processed, like sodas and packaged snack foods.

Foods that replace sugar with artificial sweeteners may have fewer calories and appear to be healthier, but are not as healthy as you’d think. Look at the entire package. Stick to wholesome, hearty foods, and satisfy your sweet tooth with foods high in naturally occurring sugar, like fruit and dairy. Sugar-containing foods in their natural form tend to be highly nutritious. You’ll not only be full and satisfied, but you’ll also benefit from the fiber, protein and calcium inherent to these whole foods.

Still stuck on sweet? Some have more difficulty shaking their sweet tooth than others. Rather than switch to artificially sweetened foods, take a new approach with some of your traditionally sweetened favorites:

Oatmeal: Go savory! Top steel-cut oats with a creamy poached egg, fresh tomatoes and diced avocado.

Coffee: Try a cold brew. It has a much cleaner flavor, so there’s less need to temper bitterness with sugar. Or choose a flavored coffee grind, like vanilla or hazelnut with a splash of half-and-half or almond milk.

Yogurt: Stir a tablespoon of nut butter into plain yogurt and top with naturally sweetened fresh fruit.

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  • Carl Knoch

    Artificial sweeteners don’t “save you a handful of calories every now and then” if you’re a soda drinker. They save you hundreds of calories every time you would have otherwise been drinking a soda. In the case of someone for instance who drinks 6 cans of soda a day for instance, it saves them 140 calories per can which is to say that person 840 calories a day.

    This article makes it seem that cutting back on artificial sweeteners would somehow magically make someone eat healthier, and that seems to be a bit of a stretch.

    • griddark

      The reason for the title, is because it works, click bait is used because it works, it’s offensive, because websites and authors lack integrity, they aren’t really there for the smart people anyway.
      Totally agree with you though, I drink soft drink, it’s my vice and I doubt I’ll ever give it up completely, I try to avoid aspartame where possible, and stevia is a great alternative for a low calorie sugar.

    • rol

      Many of the commentors here are evidence they did not read the complete article or ignored the other reasons artificial sweeteners are NOT healthy substitutes.

  • Jackie D

    Artificial sweeteners are many times more sweet than regular sugar, but that means the producer gets to use a TON less of the ingredient to achieve the same level of sweetness. A can of Diet Coke/Coke Zero is not hypersweet compared to Coca Cola, because instead of several grams of sugar (~40g) you have milligrams (~160mg) of aspartame. So it’s 200x to 600x more sweet, but you use 200x to 600x less, and achieve the same end result.

  • Dee Rhodes

    You seem to have forgotten Diabetics. Artificial sweeteners are a useful tool for us. And adding fruit juice is bad for us, as it’s the eqivalentp of the juice of four pieces of fruit. If you’re dieting to lose weight, its not bad advise. For diabetics, not so much.

    • getreal

      If you are a diabetic…. you should not be drinking soda… diet soda…. any soda… seriously…… love your body… natural food for a natural body

      • Lin Sp

        I suspect you are not a diabetic, getreal. It’s way too easy to hand out advice if you don’t have to follow it yourself. It bugs me when random people on the internet prescribe food plans and give nutrition advice to complete strangers whose health issues they really know nothing about, especially with regard to diabetes. That’s because the disease is so individual. What works for one person may not work for another in terms of managing the disease.

        Re: your advice-Dee didn’t say she was drinking sodas. She said, “Artificial sweeteners are a useful tool for us.” And she’s right. I use Swerve, combined with very small amounts of stevia. They don’t upset my stomach and they don’t raise my glucose levels. They don’t cause me to crave sweets.

        While I agree with you that the ideal food plan is to eat natural foods only, when I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, I discovered that if I want to control it, I have to give up a lot of the natural foods I love. Bye-bye to foods like brown rice, whole grain pasta, whole wheat flour, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, other high carb veggies, maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, and honey. In order to make that food plan easier to stick with, thus ensuring better glucose control and better overall health, I’ve had to make a few compromises, including using a Swerve/stevia blend to sweeten foods. That’s how it is when one has a chronic disease.

  • DrexelLake

    Maybe, probably, possibly? I’ll keep using my sweetener.

  • Alice Roberts

    Why is Stevia ignored? As a diabetic with tens of thousand more people like myself why doesn’t someone study the Stevia plant product in beverages and foods that diabetics can use? The Indians used the plant to add sweetness. I have switched my use to Stevia for a replacement sweetener instead of sugar and chemical sweeteners in tea and coffee, and I have limited my carbonated drinks since I prefer not to use the artificial sweeteners as I know they can’t be healthy. The Food and Beverage companies need to get with the research. I eat fresh or frozen fruit not fruit juice.

    • Heidi

      I agree with this and I, too, wonder why stevia is not used more? It is a great sweetener without the adverse affects of the others.