One common question among people trying to improve their eating habits is, “should I use artificial sweeteners?” The answer isn’t always straightforward, but typically I recommend limiting or avoiding them. Why, you ask? It’s just my opinion, but these are manmade substances that haven’t been around long enough to really study long-term effects of consumption. I’m not sure it’s worth the risk. Ahem…looking at you, too, artificial colors.
I’ll start with the benefits of using the fake stuff. They don’t contain calories, as most of them cannot be digested. Therefore, technically speaking, they don’t contribute to calorie intake. These substances allow us to eat and drink sweet treats without the worry of excess calories, although I also see that as a downside. They also don’t contribute to gum and tooth disease like sugar does.
Now for the downside(s) of artificial sweeteners
- Evidence is “unclear” regarding whether they cause cancer or other health concerns, and many of them haven’t been in use long enough to know if they cause long-term health issues
- Studies are limited by design, because it’s unethical to give humans large doses of a substance to determine if it causes cancer
- They are many times sweeter than sugar, which can make some people crave more sugar
- Some cause stomach and digestion problems
- Studies are showing that they can alter gut bacteria, potentially cause insulin resistance and changes to metabolism
- They don’t suppress appetite or trigger the reward center in our brains, which can lead to increased intake of sugar and calories
Here is a better question: Is a sugar-free candy bar really a healthy food choice? Not really. It’s still candy whether it has real or fake sugar in it. Some people find that using artificial sweeteners is helpful when eliminating sugar or high fructose corn syrup (which is found in regular soda), but generally I recommend transitioning off of the artificial sweeteners as well. Many times in my years as a dietitian I’ve seen a patient lose weight just by eliminating the artificial sweeteners. Until we know all the effects of regular use, I will continue to advise staying away from them.
Alissa Lorchick, RD, LMNT
Bryan Bariatric Advantage Dietitian