Why Artificial Sweeteners Will Make You Gain Weight
In the health world, there’s been a lot of hype around artificial sweeteners. Nearly every medical guru and weight loss site has weighed in on the benefits and drawbacks of using sugar substitutes, some even claiming (without scientifically rigorous evidence) that artificial sweeteners are responsible for causing certain types of cancer. But that’s not the real problem with artificial sweeteners.
The real problem: artificial sweeteners may indirectly add calories to your diet. This may sound counter-intuitive. After all, the whole reason for replacing sugar with sugar substitutes is to get foods and beverages to taste sweet without the high-calorie price tag that comes with sugar-laden treats. The theory goes that instead of imbibing a 12-ounce can of full-sugar soda at 130 calories, you can drink an equally sweet 12-ounce can of artificially sweetened soda at close to 0 calories, thereby pleasing your taste buds without packing on pounds.
Artificial Sweeteners, Craving For Sugar and Weight Gain
But the price we pay for this too-good-to-be-true arrangement is as heavy as the weight we mistakenly thought we’d lose. That’s because artificial sweeteners worsen our cravings for real sugar.
Sugar, in turn, triggers a spike in your body’s insulin level. And as it turns out, insulin rather than calories is the real culprit in weight gain and obesity. This is explained in depth in the book I’ve co-authored with bariatric internist Tu Song Anh Nguyen and health journalist Mary Ann Marshall, The Thinsulin Program: The Breakthrough Solution To Help You Lose Weight And Stay Thin.
At our weight loss clinic in California, my brother and I have worked with many patients who suffer from intense cravings brought on by indulgence in artificially sweetened foods. The cases were so prevalent that it became a whole section in our book. We also outline a recent study which found that artificial sweeteners are deepening the neural craving pathways lit up by regular sugar, but not fully satisfying the brain’s reward system.
What does this mean for those who are trying to lose weight? It means that people who rely on artificial sweeteners to satisfy their sugar cravings aren’t fooling their brain, just teasing it. The brain backfires and tells the body to eat more food -- especially if it contains sugar or carbs -- to satisfy its cravings.
In other words, the brain knows it’s not being fed real sugar but it still wants the real thing, so it sends signals making you crave more sweets and carbohydrates.
Artificial Sweeteners Contribute to Weight Gain, But There Are Merits Too
This is probably not ground-breaking news to those readers who live this struggle -- those who drink artificially sweetened beverages or eat low-calorie protein bars and find themselves reaching for ever more bars and sodas to quench their hunger and their desire for sugars. The scale doesn’t lie: the more artificially sweetened beverages and snacks a person eats, the higher chance he or she has of growing an unhealthy waistline, despite good intentions.
Though artificial sweeteners are likely to cause you to pack on the pounds, they still do have some merits. Artificial sweeteners do not cause dental decay or cavities and they don’t raise blood sugar levels, which makes them ideal for those on a diabetic eating plan. Still, it’s not wise to make them a staple, or even a getaway in your diet.
Instead, reach for foods that come from the produce section of your market and don’t cause your insulin levels to spike. These include berries, cherries, grapes, oranges -- all of which are great choices for a mid-morning snack. Even if this sounds like a drab exchange and you are holding onto your diet soda can for dear life, give it a chance. You’d be surprised at how quickly your brain will re-wire, and start rewarding you for the choices your waistline will actually love.
Charles Nguyen, M.D., is medical director of the Lorphen Medical Weight Loss Clinic in Riverside, CA, and co-author with Tu Song-Anh Nguyen and Mary Ann Marshall of The Thinsulin Program: The Breakthrough Solution To Help You Lose Weight And Stay Thin. (Da Capo Press, 2016).