Getting Real About Artificial Sweeteners

Drinking no-calorie sweeteners may increase your risk of disease.

Getting Real About Artificial Sweeteners

Tab, one of the first diet colas on supermarket shelves in the 1960s, was billed as a soft drink “for beautiful people.” The original Tab was sweetened with saccharin, which caused bladder cancer in rodents. The company reformulated the soda with the artificial sweetener aspartame, which some studies indicate is associated with changes in your microbiome that increase insulin resistance and inflammation. That leads to higher risks of obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease.

People love to think that no-calorie sweeteners are better for them than drinking sweetened beverages. However, humans are hardwired to think that sweet flavors signal, “Calories are coming! Calories are coming!” When, repeatedly, calories don’t arrive, it disrupts the brain and body’s ability to know when you’re full, making you crave real sugar and disrupting glucose-regulating insulin secretion. This can trigger overeating and weight gain.

A study in BMJ finds limited evidence artificial sweeteners provide any health benefits. In the review of 56 studies, the researchers didn’t find statistical evidence that consuming non-sugar sweeteners improved health. In another review of 37 studies, published in a journal of the Canadian Medical Association, those drinking artificially sweetened beverages had higher incidences of weight gain, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Your best move: Get real. For sweetened beverages, opt for adding berries (whole or pureed), orange slices or pineapple to seltzer water. Enjoy one ounce of 70 percent cacao dark chocolate and a handful of nuts. Pecans, cashews and roasted walnuts are naturally sweet.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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