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Everyone knows that refined sugar (or high fructose corn syrup) is horrible for your health. It can lead to rapid weight gain, upset the balance of bacteria in your gut, and it contributes to the development of diseases like diabetes or even cancer (1, 2).
This is why artificial sweeteners have become increasingly prevalent over the past several years. The food industry developed them to satisfy your sweet tooth without all the negative side effects of sugar. Well… that’s what they want you to think at least.
The truth is, artificial sweeteners have a dark side.
For years, soda companies have been encouraging people to buy “diet” drinks as part of a plan to lose weight. Yet the evidence strongly shows they have the opposite effect, and that zero calorie beverages contribute to obesity.
In one study University of Texas researchers found that people who drank diet soda (with artificial sweeteners) on average gained an extra inch around their waist compared to people who didn’t drink diet soda (3).
In another study published in JAMA Pediatrics, moms who consumed more artificial sweeteners during pregnancy were twice as likely to have babies that were overweight at one year of age (4).
Furthermore, a review of 30+ studies by the Canadian Medical Association Journal of more than 400,000 people found that, “consumption of nonnutritive sweeteners was associated with increases in weight and waist circumference, and higher incidence of obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular events” (5).
So, the evidence is pretty clear that artificial sweeteners may be making it harder (not easier) to lose weight, especially around the belly area.
It turns out that our body weight and fat percentage is not simply a matter of “calories in and calories out” but a complex system involving hormones and gut bacteria, among other factors. Here are three of the ways artificial sweeteners may be making it harder for you to stay lean.
When you consume sugar or carbs, your body releases a variety of hormones. This includes a hormone called GLP-1 that helps controls your appetite.
The problem is, artificial sweeteners can inhibit GLP-1 release (6). This can cause you to feel hungry more often and lead to overeating.
Even though they don’t have sugar, the taste of artificial sweeteners makes our brain think it is getting sugar. In response, the brain sends signals to release insulin in anticipation of sugar that never arrives. Scientists believe this may make the body less efficient in processing insulin (7).
Artificial sweeteners may also desensitize you to the sweetness level of foods, creating a new norm for what food should taste like. To make matters worse, artificial sweeteners are significantly more potent than regular sugar.
Aside from tricking your brain into thinking you are getting sugar, artificial sweeteners can directly impact blood sugar levels by changing gut bacteria.
Because artificial sweeteners are not digested in the same way as sugar, they go to the gut, where they interact with your beneficial gut bacteria.
Research published in the journal Nature showed that when artificial sweeteners were administered, half the participants had elevated blood glucose levels in as little as four days (8).
Food and beverage manufacturers don’t advertise or promote that they have artificial sweeteners inside. Instead, they highlight “low-sugar” “low-calorie” or “diet” foods and drinks.
To make sure you are not consuming artificial sweeteners you need to look closely at the ingredients list on the label. Here are the FDA-approved artificial sweeteners you may find in countless products:
While it’s always good to cut back on the sweet stuff, if you are going to have something sweet, choose natural options (in moderation). Organic raw honey is a way to add sugar to smoothies or dishes and comes with beneficial vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.
If you’re craving a sweet treat, turn to whole fruits, which contain natural sugars that are slowly released thanks to the fiber of the fruit.
There are also low and no-calorie sweeteners extracted from plants that you can add to a drink or meal. One is Monk Fruit (Lo-Han) extract which won’t spike your blood sugar and has no known negative side effects.
Stevia is now a widely available natural sweetener but seek out the version from plant leaves. Most store brands feature a highly refined extract called Rebaudioside A (Reb-A) and also contains erythritol from corn.
Artificial sweeteners are not a sweet way to cut back on calories. Food marketing has caused people to believe that artificial sweeteners are great options for losing weight and protecting their health. But this simply isn’t true.
Most artificial sweeteners can cause you to gain weight and habitually crave unhealthy food. Studies show they can damage gut bacteria and lead to an increase in blood sugar levels.