The Effects of Artificial Sweeteners

Trying to lose weight? You’re most likely searching for the best ways to minimize the calories in your daily diet. One option is to use no-calorie sweeteners to create a calorie deficit. But are artificial sweeteners really a tool for weight loss or do they lead to potential weight gain? Many healthy eaters are concerned about using artificial sweeteners.

Artificial Sweeteners

There are many options to choose from when it comes to artificial sweeteners. Certain ones offer zero calories while others provide a minimal amount that will likely make no difference to your overall daily calorie intake. These are some of the popular brands:

  • Nutrasweet, Equal or Sugar Twin (Aspartame): 200 times sweeter than sugar
  • Sweet and Low, Sweet Twin, Sweet’N Low, Necta Sweet (Saccharin): 200-700 times sweeter than sugar
  • Truvia, PureVia, Enliten (Stevia variations): 200-400 times sweeter than sugar
  • Splenda (Sucralose): 600 times sweeter than sugar
  • Sweet One, Sunett (Acesulfame Potassium or Ace-K): 200 times sweeter than sugar
  • Advantame: 20,000 times sweeter than sugar

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides more information about each sweetener permitted for use in the foods and drinks that you consume.

Safety of Artificial Sweeteners

The issue of sweetener safety is highly controversial and many consumers are concerned about side effects of artificial sweeteners. The answer to the question of whether artificial sweeteners are safe or not will most likely depend on who you ask. The FDA has determined that some high-intensity sweeteners are safe for consumption by the general public.. These include saccharin, aspartame,sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), and Advantame. Highly-purified steviol glycoside (Stevia) is considered by the FDA to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

Which sweeteners are unsafe?

In the United States, the use of cyclamate is prohibited by the FDA even though the sweetener is used in other countries. And whole-leaf and crude Stevia extracts are also not permitted by the FDA for use as sweeteners.

People who have a condition called phenylketonuria (PKU) may not react well to aspartame. For this reason, the FDA says they should avoid or limit foods and drinks that contain aspartame.

Despite the FDA having made the determination that certain products are safe for use, many health experts remain unconvinced. And there are some dieters that say they experience side effects with artificial sweeteners.

Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, MD MBA, Associate Professor of International Health and Director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, who is one of the health experts who remains unconvinced, says dieters should be concerned about sweetener safety even if they are generally recognized as safe. “I would recommend being cautious about artificial sweeteners. Newly introduced sweeteners have not been around long enough for long-term studies on health risk,” Dr Lee says.

Expressing even greater concern is Dr. Larry Goldfarb, DC, founder of Medical and Wellness Center of New Jersey. He claims that there were political and financial motivations behind the approval of certain sweeteners. “The public has been duped that artificial sweeteners are fine to use and no harmful effects have been shown to exist but research has shown just the opposite,” says Dr. Goldfarb.

Dr. Goldfarb  notes that some studies have shown a relationship between aspartame and several serious diseases including cancer. The FDA is standing by their safety rating, though, stating “aspartame is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply, with more than 100 studies supporting its safety.”

Weight Gain From Artificial Sweeteners

Sweetener safety is only one concern. Even if safe, you may not want to use artificial sweeteners for weight loss. Weight gain – not weight loss – may actually occur from use of artificial sweeteners some dieters believe.

Researchers have been studying the way that our bodies and our brains react to low-calorie or no-calorie sweeteners for years now. Studies have found that when we consume these sweeteners, overall, we end up eating more food and consuming more calories. And the result is that we gain weight instead of slimming down.

Why does this weight gain happen? Since artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar, some scientists think that  they train our brains to crave increasingly sweet foods. In addition, because these sweeteners do not provide calories, they confuse normal brain signals that tell us to stop eating when we’ve had enough food.

Another reason could be that eating artificially sweetened treats gives us an excuse to eat more food overall.As an example,  if you buy diet cookies you might be tempted to eat more of them because you perceive them to do less harm to your weight loss program. The end result is that you may consume more calories overall.

There are some research studies that have shown positive effects from artificial sweeteners. Some researchers have found that when dieters replace high-calorie foods and beverages with lower calorie or no-calorie sweetened treats they cut calories and lose weight.The results are most dramatic when switching from high-calorie sodas to diet sodas with no calories according to researchers.

Dieters are therefore left searching for answers. Scientists caution that it is difficult to provide guidance from observing eating behavior. Your experience may be different from other dieters even if a study says that artificial sweeteners may work for weight loss. You may want to think about how you use artificial sweeteners in your diet to find the best plan for your health and well-being.

Artificial Sweeteners for Weight Loss?

A reasonable first step may be if you currently eat a lot of foods with sugar, swap them for foods with artificial sweeteners. This process may help you become more thoughtful about your food choices and more careful about your meal planning.

“Ideally, it is best to cut down on all sweeteners as much as possible. But not everyone can do that,” says Lee. “So, if there aren’t other options, then you could consider temporarily moving to artificial sweeteners from sugar. But again, ultimately, it is better to eventually move to natural means and reduce sweeteners in general.”

Reduce your dependence on sweeteners by becoming mindful of your cravings and food choices. For example, you might crave a sweet soda or coffee drink in the afternoon to boost your energy levels. But even if you grab a diet drink with no calories, you may do more harm than good. A caffeinated beverage dehydrates your body which can cause fatigue. Drinking water instead boosts hydration, may improve your energy level, and provides zero calories.

Some Tips to Cut Back on Sweeteners

Dr. Lee reminds dieters that a sweet tooth is a learned phenomenon. “Like any habit, you can re-train yourself,” he says.

And Dr. Goldfarb agrees that the best first step is to re-program your taste buds. He offers a few tips to help reduce your dependence on sweets:

  • Eat half of what you want and eat slowly. You will feel full if you eat slowly and then resist the temptation to finish the plate of food just because it’s there. Eating more slowly helps your belly and your brain respond to the food that you’ve consumed. Many dieters call this “mindful eating” and find that it is one of the best ways to cut back on sugar and portion sizes in general.
  • Make healthier food choices. Include healthy fats in your diet as they will curb your appetite for sugar. Add avocado to your sandwich or salads or eat a single-serving of salmon or tuna for dinner to feel more satisfied.
  • Give yourself a deadline. Reduce your sugar intake over a two-week period and then just stop. You’ll be surprised how easy it is. Cutting back on sugar will also give you room in your calorie budget to enjoy more nutritious diet-friendly foods.
  • Reach out to experts if you can’t cut sugar on your own. Seeking the care of a dietician or nutritionist may be a good place to start.

Artificial sweeteners may help some dieters lose weight, but many experts remain concerned about side effects and weight gain. Choosing naturally sweet foods like whole fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth will help you take advantage of the vitamins, minerals, and other benefits that whole foods provide. If you are concerned about side effects of artificial sweeteners or need help cutting back, reach out to your healthcare team.