Sweeteners help you lose weight: myth or miracle?
Can sweeteners help you to lose weight? We looked at the science and found some surprising results
For years now, there has been a vigorous debate as to whether using artificial sugars can help you to lose weight or not. A review of more than a hundred studies concluded that when artificial sweeteners replace sugar in the diet (rather than simply being added on top) then this can lead to weight loss.
However, the Harvard School of Public Health points out that there are many conflicting studies, including those which suggest that drinking artificially sweetened drinks may increase your risk not just of weight gain, but also of type 2 diabetes.
Sweeteners and inflammation: the first link to weight gain
No-one really knows how artificial sugars could make it harder to lose weight, but a study done by a group in Israel suggests it might be due to the impact of artificial sugar on your gut bacteria.
In this study, published in 2014 in the prestigious science journal, Nature, researchers asked a group of lean and healthy volunteers, who didn’t normally use artificial sweeteners, to consume the maximum acceptable dose of sweeteners for a week. The sweeteners used were saccharin, sucralose and aspartame.
At the end of the week half the volunteers were showing signs of glucose intolerance, an early step in the journey to type 2 diabetes. The researchers think this could be because the bacteria in their guts reacted to the artificial sugars by secreting substances that cause inflammation. This is also what they have seen in animals.
Sweeteners, then, can bring down your daily calorie intake, but they can also cause inflammation in your gut, which leads to weight gain. This happens because inflammation causes your body to produce “cytokines”, a type of chemical that interferes with sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that allows sugar to pass into blood cells and to store it as fat.
Insulin response and cravings: the second link to weight gain
Over time, the standard Western diet blunts our insulin response: after experiencing repeated sugar shocks, accompanied by insulin release, our cells simply start to tune it out. In response, the body has to pump out extra insulin – a pathway which eventually leads to exhaustion of our body’s insulin system, and to diabetes.
Impaired insulin response is also in itself a powerful driver of sugar cravings. Even when blood sugar is soaring, glucose-hungry cells keep sending up signals to the brain to eat more.
As any experienced dieter will tell you, it’s hard to lose weight when you feel constantly tempted. To lose weight and to keep it off, you have to free yourself from reliance on sweet-tasting food. Heavy use of sweeteners will only make this harder.
Taste receptors and cravings: the third link to weight gain
There is good news, though – rather than dosing your taste buds with artificial sweeteners, simply by changing your diet, you can unlock the natural sweet taste of fresh foods.
A number of studies have shown that type 2 diabetics with poorly-controlled blood sugar have an impaired ability to detect sweet tastes, driving them to eat more. After bringing their blood sugar levels under control, however, they experienced greater sensitivity to taste, particularly sweet tastes. In consequence, they were able to gain greater satisfaction from unprocessed foods, such as apples and carrots.
So – bin the sweeteners, and fill your fridge with fresh fruit and veg. As your tastes adapt away for having a sweet tooth, you will soon taste the difference.
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