Over 40% of Americans consumer artificial sweeteners every single day in the hope that the zero calorie sweeteners will help them lead a healthier lifestyle. However, a new report published in the Canadian Medical Journal Association says that artificial sweeteners may have the opposite effect of what dieters expect.
The report analyzed 37 studies that followed the use of artificial sweeteners. The researchers discovered that people who regularly consumed zero calorie sweeteners actually had more issues with weight gain, obesity, and diabetes. The findings may come as a shock to those who have always assumed that artificial sweeteners were the health alternative to consuming sugar.
“I think there’s an assumption that when there are zero calories, there is zero harm,” says Meghan Azad from the University of Manitoba.
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Researchers are careful to stop short of saying that artificial sweeteners are harmful. There are a few theories as to why the zero calorie sweeteners are linked to health problems like obesity. Fist, people who consume artificial sweeteners are also more likely to consume processed food which immediately puts them at a higher risk for weight gain and diabetes. As well, artificial sweeteners could cause people to crave sweet foods more often. The more often that people reach for sweet foods, the more likely they will take in more calories than someone who avoids sweet treats.
There has also been research that shows artificial sweeteners can actually have an impact on the bacteria in people’s intestines. In the study, it was discovered that artificial sweeteners were being absorbed by the bacteria in the gut and changing the makeup of the essential bacterial cultures that live inside the digestive system. Because of this bacterial change, the ability of people to metabolize glucose was greatly reduced and subjects that began consuming artificial sweeteners saw an increase in their blood glucose levels in just a few days. That means that artificial sweeteners may not directly cause weight gain but they can affect the body’s ability to manage the sugar that we do consume.
On top of that, there is a psychological factor at play. When people consume zero calorie sweeteners they feel like they have earned the ability to “cheat” somewhere else in their diet because they managed to avoid calories elsewhere. Anyone who has dieted before knows that one small cheat meal can quickly turn into a big cheat meal, or even a cheat day, then a cheat week. The psychological factor from consuming artificial sweeteners could be worse for us than the packet of sugar we were trying to initially avoid.
So, what should people do with this new information? Researchers emphasize that a good, old fashioned balanced diet is the best way to manage weight and diabetes. There is no need to completely avoid sugar, either. The USDA dietary guidelines allow for 10 tablespoons of sugar per day. The best advice would be to choose your sugar intake wisely and avoid sweet foods when possible, no matter how many calories they may contain.