When saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, was discovered in 1879, it was considered a boon for diabetics. That’s because it could sweeten foods without triggering a spike in blood sugar, according to an organization dedicated to the research and history of saccharin. Since that time, a glut of artificial sweeteners have flooded the market with promises not only for diabetes management but also for weight loss. The idea, of course, is that the lack of calories and carbohydrates in artificial sweeteners allows people to enjoy sweet flavors without a high metabolic price. (Sounds like the ultimate “eat your cake and eat it too” example, right?)
As of 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved six types of artificial sweeteners:
- Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Sweet Twin, Necta Sweet)
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Sugar Twin, Equal)
- Acesulfame Potassium or Ace-K (Sweet One, Sunett)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Neotame (Newtame)
Each has its own unique advantages and disadvantages, and numerous studies have examined the safety and effectiveness of each for weight loss. Still, artificial sweeteners have been plagued with accusations ranging from cancer to gaining excess pounds rather than shedding them.
Wondering if reaching for a little pink or blue packet can really lead to weight loss? Here’s what science and experts have to say.
Research on artificial sweeteners and weight
Given the controversial interplay between artificial sweeteners and weight loss, it’s not surprising that studies on their relationship abound. Unfortunately, the conclusions are not entirely clear.
For example, a review published in Frontiers in Nutrition claimed that the majority of clinical studies do not report any significant or beneficial effects of artificial sweeteners on body weight (although the authors noted that long-term human studies are rare). Similarly, a systematic review published in The BMJ found no evidence of an effect of sugar-free sweeteners on overweight or obese adults or children trying to lose weight. And what a bombshell, an analysis of 37 studies published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that people who regularly consumed artificial sweeteners actually had a higher body mass index (BMI) and risk of developing cardiometabolic disease than those who did not consume them.
On the other hand, some research suggests that alternative sweeteners could help you lose weight. A meta-analysis of 20 studies concluded that non-nutritive sweeteners resulted in significant reductions in weight and BMI. A separate meta-analysis meanwhile analyzed data from 14 cohorts with more than 416,000 subjects. In five of the cohorts, drinking both low-calorie and no-calorie sweetened beverages was associated with lower weight, and in three cohorts, replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with artificially sweetened beverages was associated with lower weight and incidence of obesity. However, the researchers emphasized that these conclusions are of “low to very low certainty” due to limitations in the consistency and accuracy of the studies.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthy?
Regardless of whether artificial sweeteners lower the number on the scale, many people have concerns about their overall safety. After all, they are often synthetically made and are a relatively new addition to our food supply. Also, despite their sweet taste, the body does not recognize them as sugar. “Our bodies process low-calorie and no-calorie sweeteners differently than sugar. One result of sugar metabolism are calories. This is not the case with low-calorie and no-calorie sweeteners,” explains Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council in Washington, DC.
However, that doesn’t mean that Splenda in your baked goods or a diet drink for lunch will harm your health. On the contrary, artificial sweeteners have been extensively studied for safety, and generous upper limits are recommended by public health organizations. “The FDA has established an Acceptable Daily Allowance (ADI) for each sweetener,” says Toronto-based Justine Chan, RD, CDCES, Founder of Your Diabetes Dietitian. “For example, the ADI for aspartame is 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day. So if you weigh 68 kilograms or 150 pounds, you can safely consume up to 3,400 milligrams of aspartame per day. Since there is about 200 milligrams of aspartame per can of diet soda, that would mean up to 17 cans per day to hit your upper limit.”
Granted, not everyone can tolerate high levels of alternative sweeteners. For example, people with digestive disorders need to be cautious about certain options. “People dealing with IBS should avoid artificial sweeteners that contain sorbitol or erythritol as they can make the condition worse,” says Lisa Andrews of Sound Bites Nutrition in Cincinnati. She also recommends that people with the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria avoid aspartame.
People with diabetes should consider working with a registered dietitian or other health professional before delving into the world of artificial sweeteners. Chan says there’s limited research on the safety of some newer options, like neotame and thaumatin, in diabetes. Still, she emphasizes that non-nutritive sweeteners in general can be excellent (and even healthy) choices for people with the condition. “For example, a zero-calorie, artificially sweetened beverage can replace your favorite sugar-sweetened beverage because of its similar flavor profiles,” she notes. “Also, because of all the dietary restrictions, people with diabetes often enjoy very little of the food they eat, so it can be a good alternative. This is how artificial sweeteners can increase satisfaction and help you stick to your meal plan over the long term.”
And one last rule of thumb: Using artificial sweeteners doesn’t always mean health. Many foods containing these ingredients are highly processed or contain large amounts of saturated fat, sodium, and additives. Carefully reading labels can help you determine the overall nutritional value of a food.
Should You Use Artificial Sweeteners When Trying to Lose Weight?
With all the conflicting evidence surrounding artificial sweeteners and weight, it helps to get an expert’s perspective on the matter. So, according to nutritionists and researchers, are these zero-calorie foods worth including in your diet if you’re looking to drop a pant size?
In short, yes – but you don’t necessarily have to include them. “There are many approaches to losing and maintaining body weight, and the common nutritional thread among them is reducing overall calorie expenditure,” says Sollid. “Because low-calorie and no-calorie sweeteners provide zero or negligible calories, they can be helpful in reducing the number of calories, particularly calories from added sugars, in the beverages we consume.”
If your weight-loss journey involves a specific diet plan alongside calorie restriction — like a Mediterranean diet, a plant-based diet, or a keto diet — you can include artificial sweeteners in those as well. Because these products contain few or no calories and carbohydrates, they won’t significantly interfere with macro counting or plant-based meal strategy planning. (Most artificial sweeteners are vegan.) However, some diets, like Whole30, exclude the use of all sweeteners, including artificial ones. It is up to you to determine your well-being when incorporating artificial sweeteners into your chosen eating plan.
Andrews agrees that alternative sweeteners may have a place in a weight loss diet. “While some non-nutritive sweeteners might interfere with glycemic control or pose a risk for weight gain, I still prefer that customers use them over traditional caloric sweeteners when seeking diabetes management or weight loss.”
Just realize that reaching for a Diet Coke or a Sweet ‘N Low for your morning coffee isn’t a panacea for weight loss. “Artificial sweeteners aren’t magic bullets, and consuming them doesn’t guarantee weight loss or improved health,” says Sollid. “In addition to what we eat and drink, successful weight loss/maintenance plans aim to simultaneously improve health and encourage people to focus on things like regular exercise, sleep quality, and building/maintaining social support networks .”
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