3 Benefits of Cutting Back on Artificial Sweeteners

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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.

About the Author

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Sidney Fry, MS, RD

Sidney is a two-time James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition writer, editor and mom based out of Birmingham, Alabama. A registered dietitian with a passion for research and being proactive about health, she loves to eat, write, run and create simple, tasty meals with whole-food-based approach. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.

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14 responses to “3 Benefits of Cutting Back on Artificial Sweeteners”

  1. Avatar Carl Knoch says:

    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.

    • Avatar griddark says:

      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.

    • Avatar rol says:

      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.

  2. Avatar Jackie D says:

    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.

  3. Avatar Dee Rhodes says:

    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.

    • Avatar getreal says:

      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

      • Avatar Lin Sp says:

        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.

  4. Avatar DrexelLake says:

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

  5. Avatar Alice Roberts says:

    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.

  6. Avatar Debbie says:

    Feeling sore, achy, or have chronic pain? Then look to the added sugar in your diet, because 9 times out of 10 that’s your culprit right there. Artificial or even natural sweeteners like Stevia just aren’t good for us. I firmly believe the brain reacts to the sweet taste just as strongly as it does to sugar (and yes, that includes honey, maple syrup, guava syrup, brown sugar, raw sugar, fruit juices, and so on). Think of those products as the methadone for sugar addicts, if you will, because you’ll never kick your sugar addiction if you’re still “using.”

    I was in so much pain for years that I worried I had Fibromyalgia. But then I kicked my sugar addiction awhile ago, and I’m no longer sore, achy or in chronic pain. If a food needs additional sweetening, I’ll add organic Saigon cinnamon to give it that extra punch. To me, there’s nothing better than adding cinnamon to coffee, steel cut oatmeal, nonfat Greek yogurt and strawberries—and cinnamon is so healthy, too!

    I also eat clean (virtually no processed foods), and I exercise regularly, so I feel better at 62 than I did at 52. Cutting out sugar, eating only whole grains and being sure to always eat a protein with every meal or snack completely reversed my pre-diabetes (my A1C in November was 5.0), plus I have lost a considerable amount of weight, too.

    It’s such a wonderful feeling to be in control of food instead of food being in control of me.

  7. Avatar Hannah says:

    This is a topic I have done a good chunk of research on over the past couple years (more specifically Aspartame). I have to disagree for the most part when it comes to people saying artificial sweeteners are “bad” for us. I’ve always said that there is no “bad” food but rather how much of it you eat. Everything in moderation, right? I believe the same goes for artificial sweeteners.

    The FDA has stated that the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for Aspartame is 50 mg / kg of bodyweight. This is the amount that you can intake on a daily basis, everyday, for the rest of your life, without any substantial health risk. To put this into perspective, a 150 pound adult would be able to consume approximately 17 cans of diet soda a day, everyday, for the rest of their lives without any appreciable health risk. That’s A LOT of diet soda
    With that being said, the ADI for other artificial sweeteners varies and some have much smaller doses.

    The author of this article also stated that there was a study done on the microbiome of rats. I have also looked into this study. If I remember correctly, it was done with ACE-K sweetener and was almost DOUBLE what the human Acceptable Daily Intake was. I would like to know what the effect is on the human microbiome, however…giving mice 2X the dosage of what a human is allowed doesn’t help us come to any reasonable conclusions.

    Artificial sweeteners are a good alternative if trying to stick with a caloric deficit or trying to lose weight. Having a can of diet soda a day or grabbing the sugar free syrup to pour on your pancakes for Sunday morning breakfast IS NOT going to kill you or give you cancer (like people tend to believe). Paired with a healthy diet full of fruits, veggies, protein and healthy carbs, it’s fine.

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