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Do Artificial Sweeteners Help You Lose Weight?

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In order to improve your physique you’ll need to exercise hard and eat well. Replacing unhealthy foods with better alternatives helps you achieve your goals.

Many people choose to eliminate sugar from their diet as a way of cutting calories – and some replace it with calorie free options in a hope that it will improve their body composition.

Artificial sweeteners are a common sugar replacement, used by those who want to improve their health and reduce their sugar and calorie intake. But are these food substitutes a good choice for a weight loss diet or do they hide a more sinister side?

In this article we’ll find out. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What are artificial sweeteners?
  • Do they help you lose weight?
  • Do they affect your health?

What are Artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes. They are a chemically manufactured, synthetic product used directly in commercially processed food and drink. The use of sugar substitutes is particularly big in sodas and other ‘low calorie’ products.

The first artificial sweetener was synthesized in the 1800s and became popular during World Wars 1 and 2 due to its low production cost and the lack of available sugar at the time [1]. To begin with it was very much a specialist product aimed at diabetics but same became a part of overall population diet.

Since the 1950s though, sugar substitutes have been manufactured and marketed more at those that want to cut calories from their diet or want to lose weight. 

The use of sugar substitutes is now massively widespread within the food industry, mostly because of the potential profit in ‘diet’ or ‘low calorie’ foods. According to one review study [2] it can be assumed that every citizen of Western countries consume sweeteners, whether they are aware of it or not.

Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter and more potent than sugar – some are so sweet that they have filler ingredients added to them to dilute their taste. Due to their lack of nutrient value they are often referred to as nonnutritive sweeteners (NNUs). 

To date, there are a number of synthetic sweeteners approved for use in the US – these include acesulfame K, neotame, saccharin, sucralose and aspartame. These can be in fact made from table sugar which has been chemically treated with chlorine and phosphene gas to take all of the sugar compound out whilst still retaining the sweet taste.

Artificial sweeteners are free of calories which has led to many companies marketing their product as a weight loss aid. However, many studies suggest that increased consumption has been historically associated with the increasing prevalence of obesity [3].

So does a sugar substitute really help you lose weight or does it in fact lead to weight gain?


sucralose

Key Point: Artificial sweeteners are synthetic compounds that are both sugar and calorie free.


Does it Help You Lose Weight?

Most people choose sugar substitutes as they believe it will help them lose weight. That makes sense too – no calories or sugar means one step closer to a calorie deficit and a better physique. But research doesn’t really back this up. In fact they suggest the opposite.

So much so that it has been claimed that the rise in obesity directly coincides with the increase in NNUs and is [4].

In 1990, a fairly critical study of sugar substitutes was released, showing that aspartame-sweetened breakfast led to a higher overall calorie intake – it basically made participants feel hungrier in comparison to sugar [5]. This is of course the opposite of what you’s want if you were trying to lose weight.

A more recent study, published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism [6], found that aspartame interferes with a gut enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP). This enzyme offers a protective role against obesity and diabetes, so when it is blocked, weigh gain can occur.

Head researcher for the study, Richard Hodin, suggested that as the aspartame was broken down into chemical byproducts by the body, it formed phenylalanine –  an amino acid that acts as a chemical neurotransmitter. It was this conversion according to Hodin that directly interfered with IAP.

These results were echoed in another study, this time published in prestigious journal Appetite [3]. Researchers fed 29 rats yogurt sweetened with either 20% sucrose – natural sugar – or 0.4% NNU over a 12-week period.

Results showed that the addition of the sugar substitute resulted in increased weight gain compared to the addition of sucrose, even though total caloric intake was similar among groups.


healthy-man

Key Point: Artificial sweeteners may lead to weight gain as they inhibit the enzymes responsible for protecting against fat gain.


Health Concerns and Artificial Sweeteners

Since sugar substitutes emerged into the mainstream food industry there has been discussion over potential health issues and that they may be carcinogenic.

The emergence of animal studies in the 1980s suggested that first generation sweeteners such as aspartame and second generation sweeteners such as sucralose had induced bladder cancer in mice and rats. 

As use of NNUs is so widespread within Western society, if there was indeed a risk of developing cancer, the whole population would be at risk.

One large review study though, collected evidence from a number of these animal research studies in order to conclude any potential risk in humans [2]. The review found that some of the animal studies had made general, and in some cases unscientific assumptions and ignored statistical knowledge. In fact, after critical analysis case-controlled research couldn’t establish any cancer risk at all – any link seems negligible. 


Summary

Artificial sweeteners are synthetically derived sugar alternatives – they provide no calories, sugar or nutrients and are a cheap way of sweetening a range of food products and sodas.

They first became popular in the mainstream food industry in the 1950s and due to marketing claims, have since become a popular weight loss dietary aid.

Research suggests that so called nonnutritive sweeteners do not support improvements in weight loss and in fact may be a contributing factor in the obesity rise in Western population. They may contribute to changes in gut enzymes that inhibit protection against fat gain.

Whilst we aren’t saying that natural sugar is a better alternative, we do suggest that you be aware of artificial sweetener use and where possible avoid it in your diet.


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References

  1. Bright G. Low-calorie sweeteners—from molecules to mass markets. World Rev Nutr Diet. 1999; 85: 3–9
  2. Weihrauch, MR et al. Artificial sweeteners—do they bear a carcinogenic risk? Ann Oncol. 2004; 15(10): 1460-1465
  3. Feijo, F et al. Saccharin and aspartame, compared with sucrose, induce greater weight gain in adult Wistar rats, at similar total caloric intake levels. Appetite. 2013; 60: 203–207
  4. Yang, Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yale J Biol Med. 2010; 83(2): 101–108
  5. Mattes, R et al. Effects of aspartame and sucrose on hunger and energy intake in humans. Physiol Behav. 1990; 47(6): 1037-44
  6. Hodin, RA et al. Inhibition of the gut enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase may explain how aspartame promotes glucose intolerance and obesity in mice. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 10.1139/apnm-2016-0346