Swapping sugar for Splenda in your morning cup of joe is a common weight-loss trick. After all, eating less sugar and fewer calories is a tried-and-true strategy to reduce your overall intake in order to gradually shed pounds. But how healthy are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners, also known as non-nutritive sweeteners, are low- or no-calorie sugar substitutes including acesulfame-k (Sweet One), aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda) and stevia (Truvia and PureVia) have all been deemed safe for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Since the average American eats about 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day (which is much more than the recommended 6 teaspoons or 100 calories for women and 9 teaspoons or 150 calories for men), the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests opting for artificially-sweetened diet sodas and snacks could help you satisfy your sweet tooth while losing weight or keeping your blood sugar levels in check if you’re living with diabetes.
However, artificial sweeteners have been getting a bad rap lately due to emerging research that suggests they might not be a fix for weight loss and could, in fact, actually cause weight gain, among other health problems.
Here, nutrition experts take sides in the debate on whether or not to avoid artificial sweeteners.
SHOULD YOU AVOID ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS?
It’s a good idea to avoid artificial sweeteners. While more research is needed, studies suggest artificial sweeteners can disrupt your gut microbiome or the balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ microorganisms in your GI tract. In turn, this could lead to glucose intolerance, problems with your metabolism, and health issues like weight gain or Type 2 diabetes. Overall, you’re better off with natural sources of sweetness like fresh fruit.
If you’re living with diabetes or trying to lose weight, swapping sugary drinks and snacks for artificially-sweetened ones could help you better manage your blood sugar levels and cut calories. However, if you have an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s disease or colitis, it’s best to limit non-nutritive sweeteners and sugar alcohols since studies show they can increase gut inflammation, cramping and diarrhea (but only in those with these diseases).
No, you don’t have to avoid artificial sweeteners and they can definitely be a part of a balanced, healthy diet. For people trying to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes or heart disease, reducing the amount of added sugars you eat by replacing them with artificial sweeteners is a step in the right direction.
ARE ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS SAFE?
Saccharin (Sweet’N Low) is not considered safe for pregnant women as it could cross the placenta and remain in fetal tissue, according to the American Pregnancy Association (APA). More studies are needed to determine the safety of artificial sugars since a lot of the research published now is either from animals or small, short-term studies.
Some studies show a link between diet soda consumption (which contains artificial sweeteners) and metabolic syndrome which brings an increased risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. However, an association does not equal causation, and many other factors need to be considered, like study participants’ diet and lifestyle. While older animal studies pointed to a possible cancer risk from aspartame, the American Cancer Society (ACS) says recent studies do not suggest an increased risk of cancer.
DO ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS MESS WITH YOUR GUT MICROBIOME?
Recent research suggests artificial sweeteners could disrupt your gut health by causing an increase in ‘bad’ microorganisms, which may potentially be linked to overall health problems like a higher risk of weight gain and Type 2 diabetes.
Effects on the gut microbiome have been identified in rat studies, but they haven’t been replicated in humans. The reality is, rodents are fundamentally different from us physiologically, so this research isn’t relevant or compelling.
COULD ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS HURT YOUR WEIGHT LOSS EFFORTS?
A lot of people think because they’re eating “diet” cookies, ice cream or other artificially sweetened treats, they can have more of them — so artificial sweeteners could possibly lead to overeating and weight gain. Worse yet, artificial sweeteners are extremely sweet (saccharin, for example, is 200–700 times sweeter than table sugar), so they could dampen your satisfaction from naturally-sweet foods like carrots and beets and lead to cravings for more. Over time, these extra calories can add up and hamper weight-loss goals.
If you’re eating and drinking many sugary items, switching to artificially-sweetened foods and drinks may help with weight loss and management. However, some research shows artificial sugars could increase your appetite because your brain doesn’t register them as “filling.”
The majority of studies do not support the claim that artificial sweeteners cause weight gain or an uptick in appetite. Most show they help you eat less and facilitate weight loss. Ultimately, it depends on how you use them. If you replace sugar with artificial sweeteners and don’t compensate for the reduction in calories by eating more, then you’ll likely lose weight. But if you want to retrain your palate to prefer less-sweet foods or reduce sugar cravings, it’s true artificial sweeteners may make it harder to do that since they’re so sweet.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Although experts are split as to whether or not the average person should cut artificial sweeteners from their diet, it’s clear you may want to avoid or limit them if you’re pregnant or living with a GI disease. In this case, talk to a doctor or registered dietitian before making any changes to your diet.
Otherwise, while more research is needed, artificial sweeteners are generally considered safe when used in moderation. “If you’re used to having sugar-sweetened snacks and sodas on a daily basis, switching to artificially-sweetened products might help decrease your overall sugar consumption over time,” says Louloudis. “However, if you find yourself eating multiple products with artificial sugars rather than nutrient-dense whole foods, you may be better off cutting down on them.”
One thing all of the experts we spoke to could agree on is that whole, unprocessed foods are the foundation of a healthy diet. When possible, choose nutrient-dense, natural sources of sugar like fruits, vegetables, dairy products and whole grains to ensure you’re getting in essential vitamins, minerals and fiber, which keeps you full longer and supports weight loss.
Then, gradually reduce how much sweetener you add to your coffee or tea, swap juice and diet soda for water with citrus or sparkling water, and reach for a piece of fruit the next time you’ve got a hankering for something sweet, suggests Phelps.
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