We’ve been told time and time again that consuming too much sugar is detrimental to our health. It causes inflammation, pain, increases the risk of type-2 diabetes, may heighten your risk of cardiovascular disease, raises the risk for metabolic syndrome, and more. Foods that are loaded with sugar are also often processed, full of unhealthy fats, sodium, and other ingredients that contribute to weight gain and other health concerns. For that reason, many people often associate foods that are “sugar free”, “reduced sugar”, etc. as being a healthy alternative that helps weight loss. But, a new evidence-based review of available data tells a different story.
The review included 238 studies and evaluated the impact of both natural and artificial sweeteners. Overall, the review found a low impact on body weight and fat tissue, but no change in calorie intake. “Replacing free sugars with non-sugar sweeteners does not help people control their weight long-term,” said Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s department of nutrition and food safety. “We did see a mild reduction of body weight in the short term, but it’s not going to be sustained.” To add to the confusion, the review also showed that there may be negative effects from consuming sugar substitutes, including a mild risk of type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Sugar substitutes gained popularity as evidence mounted about the dangers of consuming excessive sugar. Health organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), that shared the recent review, pushed for people to cut back on consumption. With nearly 1 in every 2 adults having some kind of cardiovascular disease (often without realizing), and obesity rates rapidly increasing, reducing sugar consumption is one vital prong in the fight to improve overall health.
But as sugar substitutes were used in more foods, evidence began to grow that there were downsides as well. Some concerns include:
- People who routinely use substitutes may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, unappealing and less sweet foods, such as vegetables won’t seem appealing at all.
- This may result in people consuming fewer healthy foods that provide valuable nutrients. Fruits and veggies are high in nutrients, low in glycemic load, and high in fiber, while also providing a bit of natural sugar. All those factors benefit our health.
- Artificial sugars increase blood glucose levels, cause inflammation and free radicals, and can increase the risk for serious health concerns like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Recently, erythritol became hot news as it was found to significantly increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a study published in Nature Medicine
- Sugar substitutes may also prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake, leading us to crave more sweets and potentially gain weight. Participants in the San Antonio Heart Study who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese as people who didn’t drink diet soda.
- Sweeteners alter your gut microbiota, sometimes leading to glucose intolerance, and an increased risk for diabetes. Healthy bacteria within the gut are targeted as “food” for unhealthy bacteria, leading to an imbalance of bacteria due to some sweeteners not being absorbed. This can wreak havoc on your body- as you’ll read here, where we discuss the importance of gut health.
Add to it other possible side effects linked to sugar substitutes:
- upset stomach
It may leave you wondering which direction to take. Sugar substitutes are most often used in processed foods, which already carry their own risks. The more processed foods are, the less nutritious, and the higher in undesirable ingredients that can impact your overall health. You can read more about the range of processing, here. When it comes to weight loss and whether sugar substitutes help- evidence points to it not helping in the long run. Instead, choose unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and drinks (like juices, for example) and use raw sugar or fruits as a source of sweetness. Don’t forget to check food labels, as what’s on the front of the box doesn’t always tell the full story.