Do artificial sweeteners really help in weight loss?
“Eat your favourite sweet dishes without the fear of calories,” claim commercials for artificial sweeteners. Technically, they are right. Artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, neotame, acesulfame-K, sucralose, swingle fruit extract and advantame have 0-4 kilocalories per gram. Apart from aspartame, most of these substitutes aren’t metabolized by the body. And for this reason, they are considered to occupy a sweet spot between taste and good health.
So does that mean artificial sweeteners are good for weight loss?
Studies say: not exactly.
In June 2010, the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine published a provocatively titled article: “Gain weight by ‘going diet’?” Based on a talk by Dr Dana Small, who has been studying how the brain interprets flavour for over a decade, the article presented evidence to show that people who drink diet sodas (which contain aspartame) and use artificial sugars actually put on weight for a number of reasons.
Reason No. 1: just the taste of sugar on the tongue whets the appetite, so people tend to feel more hungry even if the sweet taste comes from an artificial sweetener.
Reason No. 2: studies found that people who substituted sugar for artificial sweeteners also tended to let go in other aspects of their diet - they felt justified in eating other junk because they had relaced calorific sugar in their diet.
And reason No. 3: researchers found that artificial sugar didn’t signal the same amount of satisfaction that you get from natural sugar, and so people using sweeteners tended to crave more food.
“Preload experiments generally have found that sweet taste, whether delivered by sugar or artificial sweeteners, enhanced human appetite. Aspartame-sweetened water, but not aspartame capsule, increased subjective appetite rating in normal-weight adult males,” wrote Qing Yang of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, Yale University, US, in “Gain weight by ‘going diet’?”.
Arshag D.Mooradian et al corroborated this in an article in the April 2017 edition of Clinical Nutrition ESPEN. Mooradian, who was with the Department of Medicine, University of Florida College of Medicine, US, at the time, wrote that artificial sweeteners can increase glucose intolerance as well as “failure to cause weight reduction”.
Studies have also pointed to the potential health risks of artificial sweeteners. According to an article published in the Indian Journal of Pharmacology, drinking two or more diet sodas which contain artificial sweeteners increases “the risk of coronary heart disease and chronic kidney disease in comparison with consuming less than 1 serving per month."
The researchers also found that diabetics who took non-nutritive sweeteners had a similar increase in blood sugar as they did when they took natural sweeteners.
All said and done, the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Diabetes Association (ADA) have approved artificial sugars as a safe sugar substitute. Those who are calorie conscious or are living with metabolic syndrome, diabetes or heart disease, can replace table sugars with artificial sugar. But these benefits are just one side of the coin. Just like everything else, artificial sweeteners, too, can have their own side effects.
The FDA has approved following artificial sugar options:
- Swingle fruit extract
Here's what you need to know about some of the most popular artificial sweeteners in the world:
1. Aspartame: The most common artificial sugar option used in sugar-free processed food items like diet soda drinks is aspartame. Aspartame is actually 200 times sweeter than sugar and contains 4 kilocalories/gram. Because a tiny amount of aspartame is enough to sweeten dishes and drinks, its actual impact on calories consumed is negligible.
But aspartame increases the risk of weight gain as it increases our appetite and leads to higher food consumption. Regular and prolonged consumption of aspartame may make us more prone to certain metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes.
2. Sucralose: Sucralose is calorie-free and 400-700 times sweeter than sugar. Unlike other artificial sweeteners, sucralose does not leave you with a bitter aftertaste. However, it contains the carbs dextrose (glucose) and maltodextrin, which raise its calorie content up to 3.36 kilocalories per gram.
3. Saccharin: The oldest artificial sweetener, saccharin was discovered by chance in 1879. Just like some of the other artificial sweeteners, saccharin too is calorie-free. It is 300 times sweeter than regular sugar but it can leave you with a bitter taste. Saccharin can also cause allergic reactions like headache, breathing difficulties, diarrhoea and skin problems in infants, children and pregnant women as it belongs to the sulfonamides class of compounds.
Saccharin use has a controversial history, though. In 1969 the US Food and Drug Administration banned cyclamate which was often added to saccharin, to mask the aftertaste. Cyclamate was found to be a carcinogen.
So what's the verdict?
In normal health conditions, moderate use of either artificial sweeteners or regular sugar is deemed safe. For diabetics, people living with heart problems and for those who are aiming to lose weight, and who can't sustain a no-sugar diet, artificial sweeteners can be an option.
Medical opinion, however, tilts towards weaning yourself off sugar and sweeteners. As Mooradian et al wrote: “Limiting consumption of any sweetener may well be the best health advice.”
Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. For more information, please read our article on Diabetes: Causes, Prevention, Treatment.
The information provided here is intended to provide free education about certain medical conditions and certain possible treatment. It is not a substitute for examination, diagnosis, treatment, and medical care provided by a licensed and qualified health professional. If you believe you, your child or someone you know suffers from the conditions described herein, please see your health care provider immediately. Do not attempt to treat yourself, your child, or anyone else without proper medical supervision. You acknowledge and agree that neither myUpchar nor firstpost is liable for any loss or damage which may be incurred by you as a result of the information provided here, or as a result of any reliance placed by you on the completeness, accuracy or existence of any information provided herein.
Updated Date: Nov 29, 2019 16:50:13 IST
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