Diabetes Diet: Consider the Possible Effects of Artificial Sweeteners
They add no carbs or calories to our food, but research suggests artificial sweeteners facilitate weight gain and insulin resistance.
The American Beverage Association refutes these research findings, and the recently revised federal dietary guidelines indicates artificial sweeteners are okay if consumed in moderation. However, the same dietary guidelines suggest artificial sweeteners should not be promoted for weight loss purposes.
A Sweet Sleight of Hand
Why the dietary guidelines, some scientists, and physicians are cautionary about artificial sweeteners has to do with the trick they play on our body.
To understand this trick, we have to first know how the body responds to regular sugar:
- Our brain releases dopamine when we eat foods containing sugar. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that activates the reward or pleasure center in our brain.
- The sugar we eat also gives us calories, and our body keeps tabs on the calories that we consume.
- When we’ve taken in enough calories to meet our energetic needs, the hormone leptin is released, signaling that we have eaten enough, or “are full.”
The body responds differently to artificial sweeteners:
- As with regular sugar, our brain releases the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine when we eat foods sweetened artificially.
- There are no calories in artificial sweeteners for the body to keep track of, but our body still expects the calories to arrive.
- The release of leptin, which gives us our “I’m full” signal, is disrupted by the lack of calories. The brain’s pleasure center continues to light up and since there is nothing to deactivate it, we want more food.
So, the body is fooled by artificial sweeteners into waiting for hunger satisfying calories that never come, and it continues to experience sweetener-induced pleasure that is never satisfied—leading to carb cravings.
Gut and Glucose
As problematic as the trick played on our brain-dopamine-leptin network may be, it’s apparently not the only metabolic glitch instigated by non-caloric sweeteners—they might also negatively alter our digestive bacteria.
A study published by Nature in 2014 reported that a high intake of artificial sweeteners resulted in study participants having higher A1C values. The researchers attributed the elevated blood sugar to changes in the participants gut bacteria caused by the artificial sweeteners.
At the very least, there is enough evidence about the potentially harmful effects of artificial sweeteners to warrant cautious consumption, as the new U.S. dietary guidelines suggest. However, everyone should consider the evidence, maybe consult with their doctor or dietitian, and then make up their own mind about how much, if any, artificial sweetener to consume.