Sugar substitutes may help stave off weight gain, but they have metabolic effects that some experts find concerning.
Artificial sweeteners hold the promise of satisfying your sweet tooth without the downside of excess calories, and they are increasingly used in products ranging from diet sodas and powdered drink mixes to yogurt and baked goods. But whether using them can prevent weight gain — a problem many people are struggling with during the coronavirus lockdowns — has long been an open question.
Now some studies are providing answers. Researchers have found that artificial sweeteners can be useful as a tool to help people kick their sugar habits, and that for some people, replacing sugar with nonnutritive sweeteners can indeed help stave off weight gain. But they can also have effects on hormones, blood sugar and other aspects of metabolism that some experts say are concerning, and they caution against consuming them routinely for long periods of time.
“The idea we need to get rid of is that because they have zero calories they have zero metabolic effects,” said Marta Yanina Pepino, an assistant professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Our data suggests that they are metabolically active, and depending on how frequently you use them, some people can see more effects than others.”
Purchases of foods and beverages containing sugar substitutes have risen as health-conscious consumers cut back on sugar. Diet beverages account for the largest source of these sweeteners in the American diet. Among the most popular sugar substitutes are sucralose, also known as Splenda, and aspartame, which is found in Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi and thousands of other foods. Stevia, a zero-calorie plant extract that is marketed as natural, is also widely used in many products as a sugar substitute.
In a report published recently in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital studied what happened when soda drinkers switched to drinking water or beverages that were artificially sweetened. The researchers recruited 203 adults who consumed at least one sugary beverage daily; only some of them were overweight.