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Too sweet for comfort? Raising the flag on artificial sweeteners

Published: Updated:

Haven’t you been told at some point that in order to lose weight you need to replace white sugar with artificial sweeteners? Or substitute regular sodas with diet ones?

Many of us have, in one way or the other, used artificial sweeteners while attempting to lose weight. Those low calorie sweeteners seem appealing to many, particularly for dieters. After all, who wouldn’t want to drink a sweet fizzy soda with very little to no calories? Not many up until they hear about the latest studies.

Diet sodas may not be doing you a favor after all

In terms of health, consuming artificial sweeteners as an alternative to sugar is still seen as a highly controversial issue. Many studies have revealed that replacing artificial sweeteners with sugar can, in no doubt, reduce the energy density of foods and beverages and promote weight loss. However, recent studies have shown that reducing energy density might not always lower body weight or improve metabolic health.

Artificial sweeteners are usually sweeter than sugar, even though they contain few, if any, calories. However, a recent study published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism has shown that regular consumption of high-intensity artificial sweeteners may have the unanticipated effect of inducing metabolic imbalances. The theory, which has been studied on mice and rats, claims that diet sodas may throw off the metabolism by blunting the body's responses to sugar.

So, what gives?

How could consuming calorie free artificial sugar set the stage for more weight gain and an increased risk of disease?

Tricking the body into thinking its consuming sugar while it is only consuming artificial sweeteners poses a threat to health. You see, from the moment sugar touches our tongue, our body starts to release hormones in order to begin processing the sugar. It is the first stage of digestion and is part of a feedback loop that helps the body prepare for what the food that is entering its system. Although artificial sweeteners mimic the taste of sugar on our tongue, they do not produce the same anticipatory responses that sugar normally produces.

In fact, it alters the activation patterns in the brain's pleasure center suggesting that the brain is not getting the sugar it craves for. By weakening the validity of the sweet taste, energy homeostasis and body weight regulation become impaired.

This failure to anticipate sugar triggers a strong sugar craving. In rodents, non-caloric sweeteners caused mice and rats to later binge on calorie-rich sweet tasting foods and pack on some extra pound, a result of false cognitive distortions. This is likely to be mirrored in humans, eventually increasing their risk of weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease especially for those at a predisposed risk.

A final thought

Much more research is needed to nail down what really happens when people consume these artificial sweeteners and if in fact they do cause weight gain.

If you are a frequent artificial sweetener user, it is recommended to limit the amount you usually add to your foods or drinks. Instead, you can consume sugar in moderation while making sure you don't exceed your limits. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men.

The major sources of added sugar that you need to watch out for are candy, cakes, cookies, fruit drinks, and ice-cream. This excludes naturally occurring sugar present in fruits and milk.

Article Reference:
• Swithers, Susan E. "Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements." Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism (2013).