Artificial sweeteners have been promoted to diabetics as a means for controlling blood sugar, and to overweight people to help with weight reduction.
No Evidence for Artificial Sweeteners
There is no evidence to indicate that the products are useful for either purpose. There has been published research available for many years indicating that these chemical cocktails are harmful. Now a growing body of evidence is suggesting that artificial sweeteners may actually promote weight gain.
The most recent addition to this body of evidence is an article that appeared in the May 14 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (1), which reviewed several studies examining the connection between artificial sweeteners and weight loss. Author Tracy Hampton wrote, “Although low-calorie sweeteners are a dietary staple for many individuals trying to maintain or lose weight, an emerging body of evidence suggests these substances offer little help to dieters and may even help to promote weight gain.”
Included in the works cited was a 2007 review of lab, epidemiological and clinical studies which Hampton said “presented an unclear picture of their usefulness.” (2)
The reason may be the brain’s response to consuming artificial sweeteners. In a study published in Neurimage (3) MRI technology was used to look at the brains of women as they consumed sugar, and then again when they were given sucralose. The sturdy showed that consuming sugar better stimulated the areas of the brain related to desire and expectation. The authors also observed that lack of a feeling of satiety due to a lack of appropriate feedback from the brain after consuming artificial sweeteners may lead to actually stimulating the appetite for sweet foods and overeating behavior as a result.
Earlier this year in another article on this same topic, I cited a study in which rats fed yogurt with artificial sweeteners tended to gain both weight and body fat. (4)
This issue of the futility of substitution is not limited to artificial sweeteners used in place of sugar. I regularly see people who have taken great care to replace their terrible diet with health food store versions of the same foods. They are consuming Earth Balance instead of butter; fruit juice-sweetened cookies instead of those loaded with sugar; and whole grain pretzels instead of those with refined ingredients. These people do not experience health improvement, and in most cases get worse since the aging and degeneration process continues on. The only way to achieve and maintain optimal health is to practice dietary excellence and optimal habits, which means a diet based on whole plant foods. Processed foods, including whole grain pretzels, are a treat.
Artificial Sweeteners Study
A provocative study appeared in the journal Behavioral Science* suggesting that artificial sweeteners may actually promote weight gain rather than weight loss.
The study involved giving 27 male rats yogurt that was sweetened with either glucose or saccharin. The researchers reported that the rats consuming the artificially sweetened yogurt consumed more calories, and body weight and adiposity increased in that group.
In attempting to interpret the findings, the researchers hypothesized that the sweet taste of food prepares the system to respond in a certain way, and when the sweetness is not accompanied by calories, the body becomes confused. This then leads to metabolic slowdown and to increased weight gain. They stated, “it is conceivable that just as exposure to non-predictive sweet taste-calorie relationships in the laboratory appears to promote increased body weight and body adiposity in rats, the widespread use of non-calorie sweeteners in the food environment of humans may have similar effects on the predictive validity of sweet tastes and ultimately on the normal ability of humans to control their intake and body weight.”
Of course, the Calorie Control Council, a trade group for low and reduced calorie beverages and foods, disagrees that there could be any relationship. This group has also continued to deny for many years that there are any potential adverse health effects from consuming artificial sweeteners as well.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge the limitations of this study. It involves rats, not people, and the researchers could not arrive at any firm conclusions. However, I’ll use any opportunity to advise people against using artificial sweeteners. Aside from mountains of evidence about their potential to damage health, they are ineffective as a weight loss tool, since they do not address the cause of excess weight the overall American diet that focuses on calorie-rich foods rather than calorie-dilute, high-fiber, densely nutritious foods. Many people continue to consume some version of the Standard American Diet with the addition of artificial sweeteners, rather than undertaking the total dietary overhaul needed to lose weight and improve health permanently. This study is just one more reason to discard this mentality.
Artificial Sweeteners & Weight Gain Resources
1) Hampton, Tracy, “Sugar substitutes linked to weight gain,” JAMA May 14, 2008;vol.299, no. 18, doi: 10:1001/jama.299.18.2137
(2) Bellisle et al, ‘Intense sweeteners, energy intake and control of body weight,’ Eur J Clin Nutr. Vol 61;691-700, doi: 10.1038/sj.ejcn.1 602649
(3) Frank, et al, ‘Sucrose activates human taste pathways differently from artificial sweeteners,’ Neurimage 2008;39(4):1559-1569
(4) Swithers, et al, ‘A Role for Sweet Taste: Calorie Predictive Relations in Energy Regulation,’ Behav Neur. Feb 2008; vol 122 no. 1; doi: 10.1037/7035-7044.00.0.000
*Swithers, S.E., Davidson, T.L., “A Role for Sweet Taste: Calorie Predicitive Relations in Energy Regulation by Rats,” Behavioral Science Feb 2008 vol 122, No 1, doi:10.1037/0735-7044.00.0.000