Artificial Sweeteners: No Calories… No Harm?

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- Many people use artificial sweeteners in an attempt to cut back on sugar and calories in the name of weight management and eating healthier. Seems logical, right? No calories or sugar, it should help us lose weight and overall be healthier.

But there is new research that should, at the very least, make us pause before grabbing that next diet drink or sugar free cookie in the name of health.

The FDA has approved the artificial sweeteners saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose as safe. As well as one natural low-calorie sweetener, stevia. And there is a fair amount of research to back that up.

However, when looking at artificial sweeteners for weight management they may not be helpful at all. Recent research looking at whether or not those sweeteners actually help us lose weight is suggesting that not only are they not helpful…they may be detrimental when it comes to weight management. In a report from the Canadian Medical Association Journal 37 studies were reviewed to see if artificial sweeteners helped with weight loss.

The studies suggested that those that regularly drank one or more artificially sweetened beverage a day were actually at higher risk for weight gain, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

There is no clear answer as to why this relationship is seen.

Some working theories are that the sweeteners can unbalance a person’s gut bacteria, or microbiome; artificial sweeteners may cause increased cravings for sweet foods by preventing us from associating sweetness with calorie intake; people may replace those lost calories from other sources telling themselves “it’s okay to have this candy bar, I drank diet soda so it’s not as bad as it could have been;” and some researchers think they may interfere with how we metabolize sugar.

Also, because artificial sweeteners are far sweeter, those that routinely use them may find less intensely sweet foods, like fruit or vegetables, much less appealing.

It is important to note that these studies do not prove that the sweeteners are the cause of the health problems, simply that there is a relationship. More research and long-term studies are needed before we will have definitive answers.

So where does that leave us? Back to moderation.

If you use artificial sweeteners regularly by adding it to or eating products like beverages, gum, candy and desserts, cutting back is probably a good idea. A little bit on occasion probably isn’t a big deal.