Are artificial sweeteners actually worse for your health and your waistline than regular sugar?
There is a lot of controversy in the dieting world around artificial sweeteners and whether or not you can or should consume them as a part of a healthy, balanced diet. A common frame of thought is that while artificial sweeteners may contain zero calories, they can (and will) still cause weight gain. Some argue that this is because of the toxins and chemicals that are found in artificial sweeteners while others claim that the consumption of such sweeteners stimulates the brain's 'reward center' and makes you over-consume sweet or calorie dense foods following the ingestion of the artificial sweetener.
Are these assumptions correct? Could you be sabotaging your fat loss efforts by swapping sugar laden treats for their lower calorie artificial alternatives? Let's take a look at the facts to find out.
What stimulates fat loss? Although this is a relatively basic concept, it's important to cover the basics first. It's imperative to understand the main driving force behind weight loss is simply calories in versus calories out, or maintaining a caloric deficit. This is a simple physiological fact that cannot be altered by any means of dieting or exercise. This means that if a caloric deficit is present, weight loss will occur (as long as water retention doesn't interfere). If weight loss is NOT occurring, that means a caloric deficit is not present.
Calories and sweeteners One of the main reasons that sugar is so intrinsically linked with fat gain (or the inability to lose fat) is that it is so high in calories. One gram of sugar contains 4 calories and is very dense meaning one gram is a very small amount. This means that a diet high in sugar may cause weight gain or an inability to lose fat not due to the inherent amount of sugar in the diet, but due to the propensity of the sugar to cause a caloric surplus (or prevent a deficit).
Most artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, contain (almost) zero calories per gram. Based on these facts, swapping sugar (or other calorically equivalent natural sweeteners such as syrup, honey, etc.) for an artificial sweetener could help one to enforce or maintain a caloric deficit, thus assist in weight loss.
What about the toxins and chemicals? Many people worry that the toxins and chemicals present in artificial sweeteners can have adverse health effects and will hinder fat loss in one way or another. These are primarily based off of the conclusions of select studies which found an association with consumption of artificial sweeteners and certain chronic or fatal illnesses. The issue with these conclusions is that the studies showcasing these findings were animal studies in which rodents consumed artificial sweeteners in a far greater quantity than should (or probably could) ever be consumed by humans in everyday life. Not only does the FDA not approve such large doses of these sweeteners in any product known to market, but even if they did or if you were to consume a grossly large quantity of an artificially sweetened product, consuming enough artificial sweetener to cause any adverse health effects would literally be unmanageable for almost anyone. It would be the equivalent to the average sized person consuming about 4-6 liters of diet soda (with the maximum amount of artificial sweetener approved by the FDA) per day for a period of multiple years on end. This is what might be considered an 'excessive dose' which yes, should be avoided with anything, artificial sweeteners included. To put it into context, everything can have a toxic effect and cause complications if consumed in large enough doses. Broccoli can cause toxicity if eaten in large enough quantities, but you rarely hear of anyone suffering from illnesses caused by eating too much broccoli. Even with sweeteners high palatability and increased chances at over-consumption, it would take somewhat of a reckless measure to consume enough for it to be harmful to your overall health (Tandel, Kirtida R. “Sugar Substitutes: Health Controversy over Perceived Benefits.” Journal of Pharmacology & Pharmacotherapeutics, Medknow Publications Pvt Ltd, Oct. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3198517/.).
"If you don't wish to consume them, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. If you wish to have some artificial sweeteners included as a part of your overall balanced and healthy diet, there is nothing wrong with that either."
Will it increase cravings? Contrary to popular belief, there are actually many studies examining overall caloric consumption between groups consuming food products containing sugar and those consuming reduced calorie artificially sweetened alternatives. These studies concluded that consumption of low and zero calorie sweeteners did NOT increase ad libitum caloric consumption and actually did aid in caloric reduction and weight loss in most cases (Rolls, Barbara. (1991). Effects of intense sweeteners on hunger, food intake, and body weight: A review. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 53. 872-8. 10.1093/ajcn/53.4.872. ).
Conclusion Like anything else, the issue of whether artificial sweeteners are 'good' or 'bad' simply comes down to the quantity in which they are consumed. In most cases, artificial sweeteners are completely safe to consume and will not cause weight gain or other adverse health concerns. Consuming anything in excess isn't a good idea, even foods that may otherwise be considered the epitome of health (such as broccoli or even water). Consuming most things in moderate and appropriate amounts isn't going to cause any issues, artificial sweeteners included. Whether or not you choose to consume artificial sweeteners is completely up to you and a matter of personal choice. If you don't wish to consume them, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. If you wish to have some artificial sweeteners included as a part of your overall balanced and healthy diet, there is nothing wrong with that either. What's important is that you understand the pros and cons of each scenario so you can make an educated personal decision and let others do the same.