Could Artificial Sweeteners Make You Fat?

Stella Quoted in Shape Magazine (January 2012):

“I’m against artificially sweetened anything. Artificial sweeteners have been shown to disrupt beneficial bacteria in your gut, and optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients begins in a healthy gut,” Metsovas says.  

Artificial Sweeteners and gut bacteria.

Many of us have seen the food pyramid—the original guide to balanced eating. You know, the one that has lauded the benefits of fruits, veggies and grains and vilified “sugars”—after all, sugars are reserved for the very tip of the structure and thus, we are told, should make up a very small part of our diet (here’s more on that here).

This makes sense; refined sugars are addictive and linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration, and tooth decay. They’re also considered one of my “Foul Four” foods to be avoided!

This societal distaste for refined sugar has led to a desire for something sweet, without the calories.  Out of these desires the artificial sweetener was born—a non-caloric “healthy” alternative. Added into everything en masse (remember the 1990’s fat free craze?), these alternatives have become the most widely used food additives worldwide, and it’s considered the better option for lean and obese individuals alike. But is it really beneficial, or is that all just hype? 

Even worse, could they actually be doing more harm than good?

The Not so Sweet Truth: 

It turns out that non-caloric artificial sweeteners (NAS for short) could very well be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  In fact, years ago, one of the first dietary changes I would make with clients was to remove NAS completely for their diet–even removing gum from their diet. 

The new controversy of the moment has shown a direct association between NAS consumption, weight gain and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Straightforward? Hardly. NAS, it turns out, tends to be consumed by those individuals who are already suffering from metabolic syndrome manifestations. Thus, it’s the chicken and the egg conundrum: what came first, the sweetener or the disease?  

While researchers may not have the answer to the aforementioned conundrum yet (although I have my 2-cents), they do know the real problem with NAS consumption. Most NAS passes through our GI tract without being digested, by us anyway. We rely on the natural microbiotic community we host in our intestines to do the dirty work. 

Everyone has a microbiotic community (the flora in your gut), and they’re responsible for regulating multiple physiological processes. What strains of bacteria your microbiome consists of is modulated by your diet and alterations to it have been associated with a propensity for metabolic syndromes like diabetes.  Did you know that one bad day of eating processed foods can alter the internal ecosystem of your gut?

What does this have to do with eating NAS? Well, its ingestion alters your microbiota. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that feeding Sucralose, saccharin and aspartame to mice left their specimens with “marked glucose intolerance”.  

Sidenote: While it’s true that human studies are always the most treasured in research, we cannot deny the examinations provided here in this study. 

The researchers concluded: “NAS promote metabolic derangements in…diets paralleling human conditions, in both the lean and obese state”.  

Microbiota: Key Player or Bystander?

NAS consumption, the researchers found that ingesting saccharin leads to a microbial imbalance (an increase in strains from the Bacteroidetes phylum and a decrease in strains from the Firmicutes to be exact) that increases our glucose intolerance.

*My recent conference with Genova Diagnostics on gut health characterized Bacteroidetes as the “fat” bugs and Firmicutes as the “thin” bugs.

Of Mice and Men:

At this point you may be wondering what studies on mice eating human like diets has to do with you. Well, those Israeli researchers wondered the same thing. They looked at the differences between long-term NAS consumers and non-diabetic individuals.

The clinical results: long term NAS consumption was positively correlated with increased weight, higher fasting blood glucose and the elevation of an enzyme that is a warning sign of liver damage not associated with alcoholism (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease).

They then took 7 non-NAS consumers and provided them with the maximum allowable daily intake for a week. Despite the short exposure period, they developed “significantly poorer glycemic responses”. 

So What?

All those poor responses and glucose intolerance are signs of the onset of diabetes mellitus type 2. The onset of this condition is preventable. In fact, it’s an “intestinal illness” or what I call the “undercover digestive ailment”. 

The Verdict:

Over a century ago we tried to replace sugar in our lives, hoping it would lead us down a healthier path. However, a growing body of scientific literature is starting to prove otherwise—non-caloric sweeteners, if nothing else, aren’t what they’re cracked up to be! If you want to live a truly sweet life, it’s time to cut the NAS out of your diet; your GI tract will thank you for it.