Most of us, intentionally or not, have consumed foods and beverages flavored with artificial, or non-nutritive, sweeteners. They are widespread in processed foods, including soft drinks, candy, dairy products, baked goods and numerous other products. The words aspartame, sucralose or saccharin no longer look foreign or hard to pronounce. On the contrary, they are frequently used by millions worldwide, and many people are not even aware that their low-calorie (but delicious!) foods often contain one or more artificial sweeteners.
The idea is appealing at the very least – sweetness without the caloric impact (and guilt). Why drink a can of soda that has 130 calories when you can enjoy one that has none? This is one reason why using artificial sweeteners has been a strategy to combat the obesity epidemic. Similarly, non-nutritive sweeteners are an attractive option for those with diabetes, because unlike sugar, they do not raise blood glucose levels since they do not contain carbohydrates.
However, it turns out that the process is more complicated than it may seem. According to Susan E. Swithers, PhD, a psychologist from Purdue University, the consumption of artificial sweeteners might contribute to, rather than ameliorate, weight gain and exacerbate chronic diseases like diabetes, heart diseases and high blood pressure. She talked about this yesterday in her presentation.
“Although we’ve been led to believe that artificial sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose and aspartame will automatically lead to better health outcomes, long-term data from human cohort studies indicate that risks for chronic diseases is actually higher in people who are consumers of diet beverages compared to those who don’t use them,” said Swithers.
Based both on her as well as prior animal research, high-intensity sweeteners have been associated with increased food intake and weight gain. Interestingly, though, consumption of artificial sweeteners (as opposed to glucose) caused the most weight gain in animals fed “Westernized” diets high in fats and sugars.
With that said, the idea that non-caloric, high-intensity sweeteners may promote rather than prevent weight gain is not a new one. The premise behind it is that non-caloric sweeteners and fat substitutes disrupt taste-calorie associations that regulate eating and adiposity. In other words, people tend to calorically over-compensate for the zero-calorie beverages or low-calorie foods they consume. The result is too many calories, often from health-wise suboptimal sources, and weight gain.
Yet Swithers’ finding is an intriguing one. It suggests that some of us may be more prone to weight gain from non-nutritive sweetener use than others. And unfortunately, those who are at highest risk are also those who are most likely to choose them.
“We tend to think that the negative effects of artificial sweeteners on things like weight gain are due to cognitive distortions that lead people to overeat, but the animal work indicates that these products can interfere with much more fundamental learning processes that are typically happening in the background without us having to use cognitive resources,” she said. “And these data show that interfering with these basic processes can alter release of hormones that normally help us regulate not only our food intake, but our blood sugar as well, and that have protective effects on the cardiovascular system over the long run. So even if people could somehow compensate for the tendency to overeat, these physiological effects may still make them more vulnerable to chronic diseases.”
In light of these findings, what recommendations about artificial sweetener use should a doctor give to an obese patient in order to promote weight loss? Should his or her regular diet and gender be considered? While it may still be too early to translate and apply animal research findings to humans, as with most things in life, I would err on the side of caution. Even though artificial sweeteners have been on the market for several decades now, we still don’t know everything about the non-nutritive sweeteners. A regular chocolate chip cookie – if you really want it – and a brisk walk may therefore be your best bet when trying to prevent the excess pounds.
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Nicole Avena, PhD studies appetite and addiction at the NY Obesity Research Center, at Columbia University. You can learn more about her work at DrNicoleAvena.com. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook, or on her Psychology Today blog.