Artificial Sweeteners And Health

Bonnie is a patient of mine who struggles with her weight. When she was younger she was slender, active, enjoyed exercise and enjoyed cooking. She is a nurse and has always been drawn to high-stress fields where she feels she can make a real difference for her patients. She married late and had two children and since then her weight has gotten out of hand.

At a recent appointment I asked whether she was ready to make some changes and tackle her weight. She has tried a number of weight loss programs without lasting success. At her last visit she brought a bottle of what turned out to be her favorite beverage with her: Diet Coke.

I asked her about it and she admitted she drinks almost nothing but diet Coke. She doesn’t like coffee so she relies on the caffeine in her soda to get her going in the morning. She justifies it by saying “at least it’s DIET Coke, there’s no sugar, so it’s OK.”

But is it? New research has come out suggesting that artificial sweeteners are not the weight loss magic they were designed to be.

Researchers in San Antonio, Texas, published a very thorough review of both animal and human research studies looking at the effects of artificial sweeteners on a number of health parameters. They found that animals fed a whole range of artificial sweeteners – including saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, or the combination of erythritol+aspartame – had a number of adverse impacts on their health.

They tended to eat more. They gained weight. They developed higher percent body fat. They had worse metabolic markers including those for diabetes and for inflammation.

These changes were more pronounced in male animals and in those with a genetic predisposition to obesity. They were especially striking in those eating high-fat, high-sugar diets and diets meant to mimic our “Western” diet.

In the human studies those participants who reported daily (or more frequent) use of artificial sweeteners had more weight gain. They gained more weight around the abdomen, which is the most dangerous place to gain it. They were more likely to be overweight and obese.

I’ve always said there’s a difference between being fat and being unhealthy. You can be a fit overweight person. But those study participants who used artificial sweeteners tended to NOT be fit or healthy. Those who reported daily or more frequent intake of diet drinks (the most common source of artificial sweeteners) were more likely to have hypertension, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, depression, kidney dysfunction, heart attack, stroke, and even cardiovascular and total mortality.

Obesity studies tend to have a heavy participation of female subjects. Because the animal studies showed the impact of artificial sweeteners is more pronounced in male animals, the dangers of these additives may actually be more than what we are seeing (which is bad enough).

If you are currently drinking diet soda thinking it will help you lose weight, please stop. The science is clear that diet beverages promote weight gain and increase the risk of diabetes and other health problems. If you like fizzy drinks there are plenty of unsweetened seltzer drinks available to choose from. Even unflavored seltzer with a dash of fruit juice is a better option.

The good news is that diet soda consumption is on the decline. But people looking to lose weight are still susceptible to the lure of something for nothing. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

QUESTION: Do you drink diet soda? Will this information cause you to rethink that?

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