Can sweeteners make you fat?
Low-calorie, artificial sweeteners appear to disrupt the body’s metabolism, and over-consuming them may promote fat accumulation, particularly in people who’re already overweight.
A group of researchers who presented at an Endocrine Society meeting in the US suggested that scientific evidence is now gathering pace that indicate that sweeteners disrupt metabolism.
They tested sucralose, a common low-calorie sweetener, on stem cells (these are specialist cells that are capable of turning into any type of tissue such as muscle or bone) in a lab environment.
They found that consuming the equivalent of four cans of diet fizzy drinks in sucralose increased the body’s trigger mechanisms for fat production.
At a higher dosage of sucralose, more fat droplets were detectable in the cells themselves.
With this knowledge, the researchers then took a small group of people who regularly consume low calories sweeteners and took samples of fats cells from their stomach area. Half of these people were of healthy weight, and half were overweight. They compared this with people who do not regularly use sweeteners.
What they found was that in the cells they removed, there was evidence of higher levels of sugar (glucose) and higher levels of genes that are known to encourage fat production compared to people who did not regularly consume sweeteners.
The researchers said that this finding was more pronounced in people already overweight.
It appears that low calorie sweeteners may allow more glucose to enter cells, which could be an issue for people already struggling to control their weight. The effect on people with diabetes is as yet unknown, and more studies are required in this area.
Low calorie sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, and so a very small amount is needed to sweeten foods. The link between the increase in people with obesity and artificial sweeteners is not a new one.
Some theories suggest that, because artificial sweeteners have no calories, they are unable to trigger the body’s hormonal mechanisms that tell us we’re satisfied with the food we’ve just had, and may encourage us to seek out other “food rewards” (1).
Others suggest that sweeteners can encourage our desire for sweet foods, and do nothing for those “cravings” – one of the reasons that some of us might be overweight in the first place. However, scientific research into this area is by no means vast, and so this is just a theory.
The bottom line is, there doesn’t appear to be any reason why we cannot continue to use artificial sweeteners to wean us off sugar, but use it moderately. Don’t drink too many diet drinks, and think of sweeteners like nicotine replacement – they’re there to help you come off sugar, little by little.
The end result should be that you eventually don’t need to use them at all.
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat.