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Are Artificial Sweeteners Making You Gain Weight?

If you’re trying to cut back on calories, chances are you’ve started opting for artificial sweeteners overreal sugar. But before you reach for that diet soda or zero-calorie packet of sweetener, you may want to ask yourself: Are artificial sweeteners really helping me lose weight, or doing just the opposite?

“Artificial sweeteners are chemical substitutions for real sugar that have virtually zero calories, making them extremely attractive to people looking to lose weight,” says Bariatric Surgeon Fernando Bonanni, Jr., MD, director of Abington Hospital’s Institute for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.

Popular FDA-approved sweeteners include acesulfame potassium, aspartame, saccharin and sucralose. But does being calorie-free really make them a better option?

Many Studies Would Argue No.

“Contrary to popular belief,” says Dr. Bonanni, “artificial sweeteners are not the key to successful weight loss.”

Research over the past 30 years has shown that, while containing zero or few calories, artificial sweeteners actually encourage weight gain by stimulating appetite, increasing cravings for carbohydrates, and promoting fat storage. When the body tastes something sweet, regardless of the calorie count, your appetite is enhanced. However, when the sweet taste comes from real sugar, your body signals that you’ve consumed enough calories. When the sweet taste comes from a low-cal or no-cal sweetener, your body is left craving the calories that it didn’t receive. In other words, artificial sweeteners make you more likely to feel hungry.

“Less of the real thing is better than more of a substitute. Artificial sweeteners give people a false sense of security that they are being health conscious,” says Dr. Bonanni.

Certain artificial sweeteners have also been found to rapidly increase the production of insulin and leptin, which are hormones that regulate metabolism and fat storage. Raised insulin and leptin levels can often be a contributing factor to diabetes and obesity.

But what is perhaps most interesting in the real vs. artificial sweetener debate is the idea of addiction. In a 14-year study conducted with over 66,000 women, researchers found that women who drank diet soda consumed twice as much as those who drank sugar-sweetened sodas. This is because of the addictive nature of these zero-calorie substitutions.

When a study was conducted in which rats were given the choice between cocaine and artificial sweeteners, the rats always picked the sweeteners, even if they were already conditioned to be addicted to cocaine. While both sugar and artificial sweeteners have negative effects, overconsumption is a much bigger problem among those who choose the sugar substitute.

Is It True That Artificial Sweeteners Lead to Cancer?

The question of a link between artificial sweeteners and cancer first arose as a result of an early study connecting saccharin to bladder cancer in laboratory animals. However, it was later proven that this association only exists in rats.

Today, studies concerning FDA-approved sweeteners and cancer in humans have shown no evidence of a relationship. According to Dr. Bonanni, “The consensus of the medical community is that artificial sweeteners do not have any carcinogenic effects.”

While artificial sweeteners may not pose as great a risk as we once thought in terms of cancer, they can still have negative effects on your health and impede your ability to lose weight. Ultimately, the best way to ensure healthy weight loss is to stick to water and limit your daily sugar consumption.

Page last reviewed: October 19, 2017
Page last updated: October 19, 2017

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