5 Ways Artificially Sweetened Products Can Make You Gain Weight
Artificial sweeteners can make you gain weight and adversely affect your health. By no means are artificially sweetened foods new as artificial sweeteners have been around since the late 19th Century when saccharin was accidentally discovered at a laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. What is new, is the overwhelming ubiquity of artificial sweeteners today and how they went from products marketed specifically to diabetics wishing to curtail their sugar intake to ‘healthy’ sugar alternatives for the health conscious and those focused on losing weight or maintaining their weight. Having been successfully marketed as a ‘health food’ with the terms ‘sugar free’ and ‘zero calorie’ now commonly equated by most members of the general public as being somehow healthier than the products they supposedly replace- artificial sweeteners have found their way into almost every diet related food product and supplement on the market. The past decade saw the production of over 6,000 new artificially sweetened foods and beverages- and the usage of artificial sweeteners in products that never needed to be sweetened in the first place. From mouthwashes and breath strips, to children’s toothpastes, baby foods, protein powders, vitamin waters, energy bars, frozen foods and even over the counter pain medications. Not to mention their presence in low fat yogurt, gelatin, diet sodas, baked goods and beverages. In fact, surveys found that as of 2004 as many as 15% of the Americans use an artificial sweetener on a regular basis with as many as 65% of Americans buying at least one sucralose (Splenda) containing product in 2008.[2, 3] (Knowingly or unknowingly, I might add). We know that sugar provides a large amount of quickly absorbed carbohydrates that can easily lead to excessive calorie intake, which when used in excess (which is never that hard) can in turn cause weight gain and negatively impact blood sugar regulation. [4,5,6] The idea is that the lower calorie sugar free alternative that artificial sweeteners offer can be helpful for those trying to lose weight. The problem is that as much as these foods have been branded as healthy or appropriate for the diet conscious, there is nonetheless an alarming amount of research showing that even zero calorie beverages can make you gain weight and bring about metabolic dysfunction. The US Food and Drug Administration’s approval as being generally recognized as safe doesn’t speak to the potential for artificial sweeteners to bring about weight gain or increase the likelihood of metabolic disease as we must remember that trans fats were awarded the same approval when they came onto the market and like so many other food additives that proved to be harmful, it took decades before they were banned. In this article we will take a look at five ways that artificial sweeteners can make you gain weight and negatively affect your health. Thank you as always for reading and do be sure to share the article with someone who you think would benefit from it.
5 Ways Artificial Sweeteners Can Make You Gain Weight- Understanding How They Work
Before we delve into the five ways artificial sweeteners can make you gain weight, it’s first important to understand how they work. As of today there are five popular artificial sweeteners on the market that are approved for human consumption here in the United States- saccharin (Sweet N’ Low), aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), acesulfame potassium (Sunett, Sweet One), sucralose (Splenda), which is currently the most popular and neotame- a new sweetener engineered by Monsanto to be as much as 7000-13000 times sweeter than sugar. Also added to the list of non-nutritive sweeteners are steviol glycoside extracts or stevia- a highly processed product that is misleadingly marketed as being ‘natural’ because it comes from a plant- but knowledgeable consumers should note that high fructose corn syrup comes from a plant as well and that just because a product has natural origins certainly doesn’t make the final heavily processed product natural. All of these sweeteners, both artificial and non-nutritive have one thing in common- they are all several orders sweeter than sugar and when used as a sugar substitute they all negligible caloric values- a factor that makes artificial sweeteners sound very appealing to those trying to lose weight. To understand why they are so low in calories we have to look at the quantity used. Sugar (sucrose) is a carbohydrate and one gram contains four kilocalories (kcals) each. A 12 ounce can of soda on average contains about 32 grams of sugar (8 teaspoons) which works out to 128 k/cals. On the other hand, because the sweetening power of artificial and non- nutritive sweeteners are several hundred times that of sugar, the amounts required are miniscule enough that they add little to almost no calories to the foods they sweeten. As an example, to replicate the same sweet taste of the 32 grams (8 teaspoons) of sugar in a 12 ounce can of soda, you only need 0.05 grams of sucralose since it’s 600 times sweeter than sucrose. An amount so small that it has far less than one kilocalorie of energy- and so you can transform a drink that gets it’s calories from its sugar content into one with a near zero calories.
This sounds like the perfect solution to our inherent sweet tooth, as all humans are instinctively drawn to foods with a sweet taste and unfortunately today most of the sweet tastings foods are the ones that are lowest in nutrients while being high in empty calories. Our human inclination towards sweet tasting foods is what stimulates us to suckle as infants and was a crucial aspect of our ability to choose foods best suited for our caloric and nutrient needs such as fruits and certain vegetables.[8,9,10] Today these naturally occurring foods make up but a sliver of the average modern diet in developed countries and it should be noted that as little as several hundred years ago, added sugar was not a regular part of the human diet. Instead it was a delicacy reserved for rich and royalty, and it is only fairly recently that the average citizen has had access to sugar sweetened foods. Contrast this with 2.4 million years of our adaptation to a diet of sugars coming almost exclusively from fruits and vegetables- which are far lower in calories and unlike processed sugary foods- are naturally high in fiber that prevents any unnatural spikes in insulin production. This idea of evolutionary discord is a recurrent theme in our current societal problems with obesity and metabolic disease. So as much as sugary processed foods are not natural parts of the human diet, artificial means of supplying that sweet taste are obviously even more foreign to our systems as there is no point in our existence when any of these substances would have found their way into our diet. As a result the idea of adverse effects from continued should hardly come as a surprise. [12,13,14]
One important fact to bear in mind is that as much as artificial sweeteners have been branded as the perfect solution for those seeking to enjoy sweet tasting foods and drinks while cutting calories so as to lose weight, the years of calorie free sweeteners being a significant part of the American diet have corresponded with a decrease in obesity rates or improved health outcomes. On the contrary, data from large scale observational studies show that they appear to have the opposite effect- as artificial sweeteners appear to dysregulate energy balance and may contribute to weight gain, obesity and metabolic disease.[12,15,17,18,19] Several studies have found that the more artificial sweeteners are regularly used, the higher the likelihood of increased weight gain-[15,16, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26] and while other studies have had contrary findings[27,28], a hard look at the research linking non-nutritive sweeteners to increased weight gain is hard to ignore. That said, based on the studies available, here are five ways that artificial sweeteners may make you gain weight.
1. How Artificial Sweeteners Can Make You Gain Weight: The Incretin Effect
There are several biological and behavioral issues that may explain why a sugar free substance with few if any calories could elicit weight gain and increase likelihood of metabolic disease and one of them may be related to what is called the incretin effect. As we mentioned earlier, our bodies have evolved to associate a sweet taste with the presence of calories and so a sweet tasting food or drink sets in motion the same metabolic processes that high calorie sugary foods and drinks would in order to prepare for the incoming calories.[12,13,29] This metabolic shift leads to spikes in insulin levels as our bodies prepare to deal with a surge of sugars that never come- insulin spikes that in turn promote fat storage. Incretins are a group of gastrointestinal hormones that increase insulin secretion and scientists have known for decades that sugars ingested orally trigger a much greater insulin response than glucose administered intravenously- even when the amounts are exactly matched to bring about the same increase in blood sugar levels. It’s fascinating stuff, and what it highlights is the fact that detection of a sweet taste plays a key role in insulin secretion- since the same amount of sugar introduced into the bloodstream directly has a much lower effect on insulin levels than if it were ingested by mouth. That said, whether a non-nutritive sweetener has calories or not, it affects the body in the same fashion (but to a slightly lesser degree) as sugars normally would and can bring about the same propensity for fat storage and high insulin levels.
2. Artificial Sweeteners Decrease Beneficial Gut Bacteria- Which Can Lead To Weight Gain
Another possible, if not additional explanation, is that some artificial sweeteners appear to decrease beneficial bacteria in the gut- thus triggering inflammation responses that promote insulin resistance, fat storage and weight gain.[31,32,33] Antibiotics are widely used in the meat production industry because the changes they elicit in the stomach bacteria of the chickens, cows and fishes that consume them make them gain weight faster. (See my article on Eating Chicken- What You Need To Know) By changing the intestinal bacterial environment in our stomachs, artificial sweeteners could be having he same effect on those using them regularly as a ‘healthy’ sugar substitute.[31,32] This phenomenon was observed in animal studies using the most widely used artificial sweetener, sucralose (Splenda) and in amounts far under the FDA Acceptable Daily Intake of 2.3 mg per pound of bodyweight. More studies are needed to follow up, but from what we understand about the importance of balance with regard to intestinal microflora, it is indeed cause for concern.
3 Artificial Sweeteners Can Make You Eat More
Sweet tasting foods stimulate appetite and make us eat more- it’s a fact that studies have found to holds true whether that sweet taste is delivered by sugar or non-nutritive/artificial sweeteners.  Studies with artificial sweeteners consistently show that they increase subjective hunger ratings more so than sugar[35,36] and that they increased motivation to eat.  We are by nature designed to expect a certain caloric presence associated with sweet tasting foods and drinks- and while the ingestion of an artificial or non nutritive sweetener stimulates the parts of our brain associated with calories- the actual calories themselves are absent. Sweetness, removed from caloric content stimulate appetites and increases food seeking behavior. Our sense of satisfaction from consuming a food comes not only from its taste- which stimulates reward pathways- but from the energy it yields as well.[34,38] Thus you are more likely to eat more after consuming an artificially sweetened food or beverage- the opposite of what most consumers focused on either losing weight or maintaining their weight would find desirable- but a perfect scenario for food manufacturers. Far from reducing the market share for their other products, aggressive use of artificial sweeteners serves to drive up sales of their other foods and beverages. Keep in mind that the burst of artificially sweetened foods has not only failed to decrease in overall obesity in the United States, it has also not lead to a decline in the purchases of other sugary food products. On the contrary, sales of sugary beverages continue to rise worldwide- even in countries outside of the US such as France and the U.K. The analogy I like to make is like that of a drug dealer whose clientele have become aware of the hazards of their drug use and would like to stop using their product but are unable to do so. The dealer then cashes in on the market for new drugs to help people get off of the drugs he is selling- except one of the side effects is that it makes you use more of the very drug you were trying to avoid in the first place. A win-win situation for the dealer, but not at all a god position for the consumer. Which leads to the next way that artificial sweeteners can make you gain weight.
4. Artificial Sweeteners May Be Mildly Addictive
One common observation I have made over the years is that those who regularly drink diet sodas tend to have difficulty stopping. The argument that the diet sodas serve as their fix- a way towards satisfying their sweet tooth and that it is ‘all that they have.’ It sounds like a pretty convincing train of thought, however the idea that humans need food and drink sweetened with anything flies in the face of millions of years of evolution. By design, we are adapted to do just fine with sugars from fruit and vegetables (and human breast milk during infancy)- all other sources of sugar fall into the category of want, not need, which brings us to the idea that artificial sweeteners, like sugar, can be addictive. The reward system that drives us to eat certain foods works the same way for many other pleasurable activities such as sex and drug use[41,42] and it can also bring about the same behavioral patterns such as cravings, bingeing or exercise addiction. Many of us can attest to the fact that when you go for a really long time without eating a sugary food or drink that you enjoy that if you begin consuming it again you are apt to go a bit overboard. This bingeing behavior isn’t a matter of poor self-control, it’s the simple biological reality of how we are wired. It’s also one of the reasons moderation isn’t realistic when dealing with foods that are high in sugar, salt or fats as we have far less control over your food intake than most would like to think. Artificial sweeteners do not activate the reward centers of our brain in quite the same way as sugar, but studies show that sweet tasting foods may affect cortisol secretion and compensate for feelings of stress.  Which is why many people turn to sweet tasting food and drink after a hard day at work, and artificially sweetened products as well since they activate the insula, orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala- taste centers in the brain that can lead to addictive behavior.
5. Artificial Sweeteners Make You More Prone To Eating Sugary Foods
One of the most well documented aspects of food related behavior is that repeated exposure trains flavor preference. Simply stated, the more you eat a food or drink a drink with a particular flavor, the more inclined you are to have an intense desire for that flavor.[45,46] This holds true for salty foods, fatty foods or sugary ones and it’s a fact that is very well known to food corporations bent on ensuring steady sales of their products. Research shows that as much as we may feel like we can’t live without the taste of a salty food or a rich fatty one, if intake is systematically decreased over the course of several weeks, we develop a preference for lower levels of that particular flavor.[34,45,46] Repeated use of artificial sweeteners thus encourages sugar dependence and thus increases the likelihood of eating the very low nutrient and empty calorie sugary products which are so easy to overeat. It’s a downward spiral as the individual bent on kicking his or her sugar cravings, consumes more artificially sweetened products to get his or her fix, but in so doing become less likely to resist the allure of sugary foods. A scenario which works perfectly for corporate profit margins but one that leaves the consumer confused as to why they aren’t losing weight and questioning their willpower because of their inability to resist sugary foods.
We should also note that many foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners still retain high calorie counts and can be misleading when marketed as being healthier because they are sugar free. Sugar is only one source of calories in foods like yogurt, ice cream and frozen desserts- so making them sugar free creates only a minor reduction in calories as fats and (to a lesser extent) proteins make up most of its energy content. Food corporations also often add gels, maltodextrins(another processed simple sugar) and increase the fat content of products that are artificially sweetened, thus while it may be marketed as being healthier- the calorie difference isn’t always that substantial relative to the regular, sugar sweetened product.  That being said, the focus for weight loss and healthy living in general should never be centered around products that have no place in our ancestral diet as we can’t engineer our way out of overeating- and we should be aware that no major food corporation is going to go out of their way to help us do so. (See my article- The Economics of Obesity). Instead it’s up to us to focus on lifestyle changes and learning to do without and adapt to natural and less extreme taste sensations from high fiber, fruits and vegetables as opposed to substituting non-nutritive sweeteners to replace added sugar in processed products. It’s not easy, but given the numerous potential hazards of artificial sweeteners and high consumption of sugary, low nutrient foods, it’s a path you have to take if you are serious about long term weight loss and overall health. Fruits and vegetable growers don’t have the same budget parameters as the makers of processed foods so an apple or a carrot may not seem as sexy as diet soda or artificially sweetened chewing gum, but it’s a way of eating that has helped humans maintain healthy body weights without increased incidences of obesity for millions of years. So give it a try!
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