Volume 6, Issue 14 | April 11, 2013
Do artificial sweeteners really make you pack on the pounds? The answer may surprise you
Every now and then I hear someone say that artificial sweeteners are at least partially responsible for our obesity epidemic. They claim that somehow artificial sweeteners increase hunger or the desire for carbs or both. Their reasoning goes like this. Over the past 35 years, the use of artificial sweeteners has dramatically increased. And over that same period of time, the percentage of Americans who are overweight or obese has increased from 30% to 70%! Coincidence? Maybe. But now a new study has enough data to put this controversy to rest.

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First, let's get clear on this. We have an epidemic of obesity in the U.S. According to the study, "Americans are gaining an average of one to two pounds per year. If we don't stop the present trend, by the year 2030, 86.3% of adults in the United States will be overweight or obese." This is absolutely shocking. And if artificial sweeteners are even partially to blame, we need to know about it.

Researchers at the University of Toronto, Department of Nutritional Sciences set out to answer the question by looking at 74 different published studies. A number of these studies were controlled trials, the benchmark of scientific study. After they looked at all the data, the authors put it this way, "We conclude that there is no evidence that artificial sweeteners can be claimed to be a cause of higher body weights in adults." So does that settle it?

I was a bit suspicious of the report because The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) provided funds for the study. The ILSI is a nonprofit organization founded in 1978 and headquartered in Washington, DC. It is a member organization whose members are primarily food and beverage, agricultural, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies. Not exactly an impartial group.

But just because the ILSI is obviously biased toward artificial sweeteners does not mean that the study has to be biased. So just to be sure, I read it in its entirety with the eye of a skeptic. And I believe that the data speaks for itself.

The authors examined 31 different studies looking at the effect of artificial sweeteners that were given in beverages, food, or by capsule. Most of the studies showed that the sweeteners had no effect at all on hunger or the desire for sweets.

Three short-term studies showed that the sweeteners did increase appetite or hunger. But two similar studies showed the exact opposite – they decreased both hunger and appetite. So overall, there doesn't seem to be a consistent effect.

The authors also reviewed seven different review papers on artificial sweeteners. All of them had reached the same conclusion. Artificial sweeteners do not result in weight gain. For example, one review of intense sweeteners and the impact on hunger, food intake, and body weight stated, "It needs to be stressed that there are no data suggesting that consumption of food and drinks with intense sweeteners promotes food intake and weight gain."

Finally, the authors reported on four different placebo-controlled trials. In each of these experiments, half of the subjects ate artificial sweeteners and the other half placebos. Each experiment concluded that artificial sweeteners do not cause weight gain.

So does all this mean that it's now OK to have all the artificial sweeteners you want? Of course not. It's not OK to eat all the artificial anything you want. All it means is that if you have a weight problem, you are not going to solve it by eliminating artificial sweeteners. You have to exercise, keep the high glycemic carbs to an absolute minimum, and watch the calories.

If you must have something that's sweet, use natural sweeteners, such as stevia or xylitol. If you can't give up soft drinks, try the Zevia brand, which uses stevia as the sweetener. You can find it at any health food store and many grocery stores.

Finding your Real Cures,

Frank Shallenberger, MD

REF: Anderson GH, Foreyt J, Sigman-Grant M, Allison DB. The use of low-calorie sweeteners by adults: impact on weight management. J Nutr. 2012 Jun;142(6):

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