When you start a diet, you’re always looking for different ways to save up on the calories.
The “healthy” swaps are all over – they’re even on packaging in the grocery store!
One of the most common swaps is switching out regular full-sugar soft drinks for the zero-calorie, artificially sweetened diet alternative.
It seems like an obvious and smart switch to make until your coworker tells you how the artificial sweeteners in the diet soda cause cancer, eat away at your brain and lead to weight gain.
Which nobody wants, but now you’re facing so much conflicting information. What started as a smart alternative to weight loss now has you worrying about getting cancer.
This is where it’s best to see what the science has to say about this.
What Are Artificial Sweeteners?
All zero-calorie drinks or low-calorie beverages make use of some sort of artificial sweetener or sugar substitute to make it so.
These sweeteners are chemicals added to foods and beverages to enhance the sweetness of the food. They provide a taste similar to regular old table sugar but at a fraction of the calorie intake. This is because artificial sweeteners can be several thousand times sweeter than regular sugar.
As a result, when replacing sugar with artificial sweetener, less artificial sweetener is needed than sugar to establish the same sweetness as the full-sugar version of the product. The amount being used is usually so small that almost no calories actually get consumed!
The Effects Of Artificial Sweeteners
As you already know, this is the go-to for people trying to save calories while trying to lose weight, but the word “artificial” and “chemicals” sets off sirens for us that something might not be right. Is our concern justified by science or is it irrational?
Effects On Appetite
It has been rumored that artificial sweeteners could increase appetite and promote weight gain. In fact, a few early studies on the topic suggest this exact claim.
The general idea behind this is that artificial sweeteners don’t properly activate the food reward pathways in your gut and brain to signal feelings of satiety. Which is believed to “confuse” the brain into still being hungry.
It’s also been suggested that sweeteners can cause cravings for sugary foods in your body. Since your body gets “teased” with a fake version of sugar it creates a desire for the real thing, kicking in the big sugar cravings.
These ideas are rational in nature but science says otherwise.
Several studies (1, 2, 3, 4) have found that individuals that consume artificially sweetened drinks actually report being less hungry than they would with a regular full sugar beverage. Less hunger also means fewer cravings and better overall feelings of satiety. Meaning artificially sweetened foods and drinks could actually help you feel satisfied longer and reduce the chances of overeating.
Effects On Gut Health
Your gut is often referred to as the “second brain” of the body because of the seemingly endless role it plays in different aspects of your health.
Your gut is composed of several million bacteria that influence how your body responds and these bacteria are greatly affected by what you eat.
One study found that the artificial sweetener saccharin disrupted gut bacteria balance in four out of seven healthy participants that didn’t regularly consume artificial sweeteners. Of course, this was a small study, done in a short period of time, and only used one type of sweetener so it’s hard to solidly say that it’s truly disruptive to the gut microbiome.
Overall, there haven’t been any significant research studies done on the broader impact of gut health on the human population, but the general idea seems to be if you have a preexisting gut condition (IBS, Hashimoto’s, Grave’s, etc.) erring on the side of caution and limiting consumption of artificial sweeteners would be the safer choice.
Artificial Sweeteners And Cancer
Cancer has been touted as an effect of regular artificial sweetener consumption for over 50 years! This conclusion came as a result of an animal study where mice were fed extremely high amounts of saccharin and cyclamate (200x the recommended daily allowance) and found an increased risk of bladder cancer.
Of course, mice aren’t humans. They metabolize artificial sweeteners differently than us. Not to mention that they also consumed an obscene amount of artificial sweeteners that will likely never be hit.
Luckily for us, however, over 30 human studies have been done since then. One study followed 9,000 participants over a 13 year period and analyzed their artificial sweetener intake. After analyzing the results and accounting for the various factors, the researchers concluded that there is no link between artificial sweeteners and the risk of developing various cancers.
This is one of several massive studies that all pointed to the same conclusion. Unlike with the relation to gut health where there haven’t been nearly as many studies done to this magnitude and length of time – it’s safe to say that artificial sweeteners do not increase your risk of getting cancer.
Effects On Dental Health
We all know too much sugar leads to more cavities. The reason that happens is that when you consume sugar, the bacteria in your mouth begin to ferment the sugar. This process creates an acid that damages tooth enamel.
Artificial sweeteners, however, do not react with the bacteria in your mouth, and as a result, don’t produce any acid or cause tooth decay at all.
In fact, the research is so strong on this that the Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority state that all artificial sweeteners, when consumed in place of sugar, help prevent tooth decay.
Effects On Weight Loss
By this point, you’re probably starting to realize that artificial sweeteners actually aren’t as bad as most people make them out to be, but it still doesn’t quite answer the question of whether or not it actually helps you with weight loss.
Don’t worry, the scientists got our back on this one. There have been several randomized and controlled studies that show when all other variables are consistent, consuming artificial sweeteners can reduce body weight, fat mass, and waist circumference.
Understanding the science of weight loss, this makes complete sense! At the end of the day, the most important thing when it comes to reducing weight loss is your total calorie consumption. If you’re switching out a high-calorie drink or food with a lower calorie alternative then you’re doing your part in helping your weight loss efforts.
Of course, switching from regular soda to diet soda isn’t going to solve all your problems – your total calorie intake for the day still needs to be managed. It’s just that artificial sweeteners are a helpful tool to manage that intake for weight loss success.
You’ll still need to understand the food you’re eating and how much of it to have to be truly successful in your long term weight loss efforts. Lucky for you, I gathered all the nutritional knowledge you need to know into one free and easy to read ebook. You can get your copy of The Nutrition Manual: Mastering Your Diet Made Simple here!