If you think switching to artificial sweeteners will help with weight loss, you may want to put down that diet soda for a moment.
A new meta-analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that artificial sweeteners may be associated with an increased risk of obesity, long-term weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Artificial sweeteners include stevia, sucralose, and aspartame.
Researchers from the University of Manitoba reviewed 37 studies involving 400,000 people for an average of 10 years.
Seven of these studies were randomized controlled trials that followed 1,003 people for an average of six months.
Researchers said the seven trials failed to show a consistent link between artificial sweeteners and weight loss. The longer-term studies actually showed a higher risk of health problems.
“Most people consuming artificial sweeteners do so assuming these products will help them avoid weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. Yet we are seeing the opposite association from multiple studies,” Meghan Azad, PhD, told Healthline. Azad is the lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba.
“Based on all of the research done so far, there’s no clear evidence for a long-term benefit (of using artificial sweeteners). But there is evidence of potential harm from the long-term consumption of artificial sweeteners,” she said.
Too much sugar
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people in the United States consume too much added sugar.
These are sugars that are added to foods and beverages when they’re processed or prepared. Naturally occurring sugars in fruit or milk are not considered added sugars.
Both the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend people should keep their sugar intake to less than 10 percent of their total daily calories.
For a 2,000-calorie diet, for example, only 200 calories should come from added sugars.
“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and USDA MyPlate recommend people choose and prepare foods and beverages with little added sugars or caloric sweeteners,” Lauri Wright, PhD, assistant professor in public health at the University of South Florida, told Healthline.
“In excess, sugar can contribute to nutritional deficiencies by supplying calories without providing vitamins and minerals. Excess sugar can also cause tooth decay and contribute to obesity, heart disease, and poor control of diabetes. Additionally, sugar causes inflammation, which worsens arthritis and is bad for blood vessels,” she said.
Be aware of the consequences
Azad said it’s important that consumers are aware of the risks of both sugar and artificial sweetener consumption.
“Sugar is receiving a lot of attention lately as a major cause of these conditions. It’s important to study ‘sugar substitutes’ in parallel, to understand their impact on the same conditions. If we don’t do this, consumers may (understandably) assume that artificial sweeteners are a healthy choice — but this may not be true. Reducing consumption of sugar and artificially sweetened products in general is likely a good strategy,” she said.
Azad added that more research is needed to understand the long-term health impact of artificial sweeteners.
“This is especially important given the widespread and increasing consumption of artificial sweeteners in the general population, and the increasing use of artificial sweeteners in our food supply. Over 40 percent of adult Americans consume NNS (non-nutritive sweeteners) on a daily basis,” she said.
Artificial sweeteners are everywhere
Azad noted that studies have also found that some people are exposed to artificial sweeteners without even realizing it.
Blood and urine samples taken from people who reported not consuming artificial sweeteners still found traces of the product.
“This should inspire consumers to think about whether they want to be consuming artificial sweeteners, especially on a regular basis. We don’t know if they’re a truly harmless alternative to sugar,” Azad said.
So which is the better option for weight loss? Artificial sweeteners or regular sugars?
Wright says it’s not as simple as switching from one product to another.
“Weight loss is very complicated. It’s not realistic to think that sugar substitutes alone will result in significant weight loss,” she said.
She advises that those who want to lose weight should work with a registered dietician. A dietician can help identify lifestyle changes that need to be made and develop strategies to support those changes.
“Switching to sugar substitutes may be one strategy, but alone it will probably not have as great an impact,” she said.