Are Artificial Sweeteners Making Us Fat?

Confession: In college, I was a complete Diet Coke head. There was always at least one case of the stuff in my refrigerator, and I usually kept an assortment of other diet sodas. I had no idea at the time that aspertame and other artificial sweeteners were so terrible for my body, and it was tough to kick my soda habit, but every time I read something new about diet soft drinks, I’m glad that I did.

Not too long ago, Zachary talked about a suspected link between aspartame and cancer. Now, researchers are saying that these low- and no- calorie sugar substitutes tend to defeat their purpose: artificial sweeteners might be making us fatter.

Sure, you’re saving a couple of hundred calories by switching from regular soda pop to a diet variety, but the research suggests that those sweet treats are changing our palettes. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association links an overly sweetened diet with increased cravings for sweets. The article makes the distinction between sugary (or artificially sugary) junk food and “sugar-containing foods in their natural form,” which they note, “tend to be highly nutritious.”

In an article for Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. David Ludwig goes into a bit more detail about the issue:

One reason for concern is that consumption of artificial-sweetened beverages produces an evolutionarily unprecedented dissociation between sweet taste and calorie intake that might confound the regulatory system designed to control hunger and body weight.

He says that this is even more dangerous when we’re talking about children:

In support of this possibility, a recent study found that rodents fed the artificial sweetener saccharin lost the ability to accurately regulate calorie intake and gained weight. Another concern is that habitual consumption of artificial-sweetened beverages may β€œinfantilize” taste preferences, especially among children. Compared to the hyper-intense sweetness of these beverages, fruit may seem bland and vegetables may seem inedible, adversely affecting overall diet quality. Indeed, two observational studies have linked artificially sweetened beverage consumption to higher risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Cutting the sugar and artificial sweetener in your diet isn’t the easiest change. If you’re looking for some tips, Mike O’Donnell has some tips on how to beat the sugar habit.

Image Credits:
Full-Figured Man. Creative Commons photo by Tobyotter
Diet Coke. Creative Commons photo by mn_francis

11 thoughts on “Are Artificial Sweeteners Making Us Fat?”

  1. I’m not sure I go along with the idea that certain food categories “make us fat.” There are so many other factors. I know a guy who drinks diet coke every day, but he is a runner, skier and mountain climber who is in tremendous shape. Still, I think it is reasonable to limit one’s consumption of sweetened drinks, particularly for kids. When I was growing up a Pepsi shared with my sister was a once or twice a week treat. I think thats about right.

  2. That’s a legit point…it’s definitely about more than just food. I do think that the diet soda trend overall is no good, from a health perspective. It feels like folks like your runner friend are more the exception than the rule, you know?

    I’m totally with you on moderation. That’s what it’s all about! We also had junk food from time to time growing up, but my folks always stressed that that sort of thing was a treat, not the norm. :)

  3. great post, Becky.

    thanks for linking to my first post on artificial sweetener.

    in the next comment, i will give the link to my follow-up, more comprehensive post on the topic as well.

  4. I can see the psychological effects of these artificial sweeteners loosely being linked to obesity. But that’s about it, a loose connection.

    I am totally against artificial sweeteners given their controversial side effects and tests. Not only that, but they also taste horrible.

    One of the main artificial sweeteners that is frequently overlooked is Acesulfame Potassium. It is often paired with surcalose (Splenda) due to its slight bitterness. Watch out for this one because it has not be thoroughly tested and in some rodent studies, it has shown to cause cancer.

    If you are really worried about becoming obese, stop consuming empty calorie garbage. i.e. soda, candy, super-sweet alcoholic beverages.

  5. As a registered dietitian, I believe that this article leaves out important information about artificial sweeteners. Data, which have been published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition and supported by the American Dietetic Association, speak to their safety and actually show that low- and no-calorie sweeteners can help you manage your weight. As a consultant for food and beverage companies, including the Coca-Cola Company, I understand that obesity is a complex issue that is not going to be solved by blaming one type of food or beverage. Instead, the important thing is for us to work together to educate people on how to consume all sweets in moderation (whether sweetened by sugar or artificially) and to balance the intake of these foods with physical activity.

  6. I agree that physical activity is important, but I just can’t get behind the idea that artificial sweeteners like aspartame are safe. There is so much evidence linking them to cancer and other serious health problems. I think Zach’s two part series really covers the health implications of artificial sweeteners nicely, if you want to take a peek:

    With that much evidence, I’m inclined to err on the side of caution.

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