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Artificial Sweeteners: Allies or Antagonists to Weight Loss?
Artificial Sweeteners: What are they?
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic man-made sugar substitutes which are added to food to mimic the taste of natural sugar, but with a fraction or none of the calorific value. There are multiple forms on the market including:
Saccharin : the oldest artificial sweetener discovered over one hundred years ago, and marketed as Sweet “N” Low, Sweet Twin and Necta Sweet
Aspartame, marketed as Nutrasweet, Equal, Canderel, Spoonful, Diabetisweet and Aminosweet
Sucralose, used in Splenda
Acesulfame K, also known as Acesulfame potassium, Ace K, Sunnett, Sweet One, Sweet and Safe
Neotame, the newest artificial sweetener on the market, which is a cousin to aspartame, and targeted at phenylketonuria (PKU) sufferers due to a minimal amount of phenylalanine produced during digestion
Artificial sweeteners have long been promoted by the food industry as the panacea of weight loss. However, our increasing consumption of an ever-expanding range of artificially sweetened food and drink products is coinciding with an escalating obesity epidemic, so, despite the powerful rhetoric of the commercially-minded food industry, do artificial sweeteners really help us lose weight?
What the Evidence Actually Says
Large scale, high quality studies reveal that artificial sugar substitutes do not aid weight loss, but actually promote weight gain! As far back as the 1970s, the Nurses’ Health Study associated saccharin consumption with an eight-year weight increase in 31,940 women (1), and in the 1980s The San Antonio Heart Study revealed a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) in 3,682 adults who regularly consumed artificial sweeteners; interestingly the greater the consumption of artificial sweeteners, the greater the BMI, showing a clear dose-dependent correlation between the two (2). A further large scale study from the 1980s, conducted by The American Cancer Society, followed 78, 694 women and again revealed that those who consumed artificial sweeteners gained weight compared to those who didn’t (3).
So, the evidence is clear : contrary to the marketing hype, artificial sweeteners actually fuel weight gain, but how?
Artificial Sweeteners and The Reward Pathway
Increasing evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners do not activate the food reward pathway in the brain in the same way that natural sweeteners do. Consumption of naturally sweet foods triggers the release of signalling molecules from our taste buds which travel to our brain and cause the sensation of sweetness and also that pleasurable “high” feeling. Humans use this sweet taste sensation to predict the calorific content of food; therefore eating non-calorific artificial substitutes disrupts this predictive mechanism and thus the reward pathway itself. Indeed, when calorific content is not delivered, as in the case of artificial sweeteners, the reward pathway is not satisfied and it continues to crave sweetness in the form of concrete calories, leading to increased appetite and greater overall consumption, thus fuelling weight gain (4). Furthermore, regular consumption of artificial sweeteners also encourages sweet cravings and sugar dependence by training taste buds to seek out sweet flavours (5).
Artificial Sweeteners : A Recipe for Disaster
It is clear that synthetic sugar substitutes mess up our metabolism and promote weight gain and, even more worryingly, have been linked to sinister health effects (6).
My advice is plain and simple : avoid artificial sweeteners and control your sweet cravings naturally by balancing blood sugars with sensible eating patterns. See my previous blogs on “Protein”, “Carbohydrate” and “Fats” for more information on blood sugar management and healthy eating.
Juliet Schaffer, Nutritionist, Evolve Nutrition