Could Artificial Sweeteners Be to Blame for Weight Gain?

Those seemingly harmless little packets of sugar alternatives promise to provide you with a sweet, satisfying flavor sans the extra calories that natural sugar is guaranteed to tack on. But there’s a giant loophole in this “weight loss” plan: Not only are artificial sweeteners bad for you, plain and simple, (and we’ll get to that in a moment), but a new study published Monday just linked them to long-term weight gain, when their sole purpose is quite the opposite.

If that’s not enough for you to kick your Splenda or Sweet’N Low habit, know this: Countless research has found artificial sweeteners to be associated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, as well as having a negative effect on metabolism, gut bacteria and appetite.

All for the sake of nixing a couple dozen calories off your day’s talley? Doesn’t make sense to me.

What the research says

Here’s what the latest research, published in Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) found: Researchers at the University of Manitoba’s George & Gay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation conducted a systematic review of 37 studies that followed over 400,000 people for an average of 10 years. Many of these studies were, in fact, led with the mission of discovering a link between artificial sweeteners and weight loss, however, I think it’s important to note that only 7 of the 37 studies were randomized controlled trials (the gold standard in clinical research). When the researchers looked into the studies more carefully, they found a stronger link between consumption and relatively high risks of weight gain and obesity, as well as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and a slew of other health issues, than they did with weight gain. In other words, artificial sweeteners do not help with weight management at all, and may even be linked to the contrary.

A deeper look at artificial sweeteners

I can relate to quitting the artificial sweeteners. I used to drink diet soda for years while in residency and kicked my habit to the curb when I realized I was experiencing so many side effects. But let’s take a closer look at them for a second. They’ve been around since the 1950s and have been controversial since their introduction to the main market. But since then, a whole laundry list of side effects have been associated with the use of artificial sweeteners. Here are a few:

  • Migraines
  • Changes in vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Stomach pain
  • Changes in heart rate
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Seizure
  • Certain cancers

Where you might be consuming artificial sweeteners

These days it’s not simple enough to say “Stop putting artificial sweeteners in your coffee.” If you’re guilty of this, yes, please do stop. But the problem is that artificial sweeteners are now everywhere—in everything from toothpastes and chewing gum to salad dressings and yogurts. Perhaps the most popular artificial sweetener that most people know about is aspartame. You might even notice certain brand promoting that they are “aspartame-free.” But aspartame isn’t the only artificial sweetener out there. Here is a list of the major ones you might spot on your ingredient labels:

  • Aspartame
  • Acesulfame potassium
  • Alitame
  • Cyclamate
  • Dulcin
  • Equal
  • Erythritol
  • Glucin
  • Kaltame
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Mogrosides
  • Neotame
  • NutraSweet
  • Nutrinova
  • Phenlalanine
  • Polydextrose
  • Saccharin
  • Splenda
  • Sorbitol
  • Sucralose
  • Tagatose
  • Twinsweet
  • Sweet ‘N Low
  • Xylitol
  • Zerose

The bottom line

My advice is to avoid all artificial sweeteners. It’s better to just have sugar, but less of it. There are some all-natural sweeteners on the market — stevia is one — that I’m okay with recommending in moderation. The key is to limit your consumption of sweets — not trick your body and mind into thinking that it’s still getting the flavor without the added weight gain. You should be enjoying a healthy, well-rounded diet that includes some sweets, sure, but also a hefty dose of fruit, veggies, protein and healthy fats like avocados, nuts, and salmon.