Are artificial sweeteners bad for you? We get this question all the time. First and foremost, it needs to be said: diet beverages have an undeserved bad reputation. They’ve been blamed for everything from making you gain weight to messing with your hormones. And, study-after-study tries to pardon the beverages without any luck.
Plenty of research has found that the artificially sweetened diet drinks do not cause you to gain more weight. In fact, they might help with weight loss indirectly by reducing appetite.
So, why do artificial sweeteners have such a bad reputation? Probably for the same reason that people believe white rice will make you fat (it doesn’t).
Nutritional dogma is always stronger than nutritional details. So, if you see an artificial sweetener on a label, here’s what you really need to know.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Make You Gain Fat?
Most of the negative research about diet sodas are done within studies with rats. But, when humans are tested, the negative results are not replicated.
And yet, even if research doesn’t support the idea that diet soda causes weight gain directly (seriously, diet soda does not make you fat), plenty of people still believe it disrupts insulin sensitivity and, thereby, makes it easier to store fat.
In a new study, participants had two drinks per day of either 330ml of an artificially sweetened drink or 330ml of carbonated water (they tested carbonated water, so it’d be harder to tell the 2 drinks apart).
The artificially sweetened drink contained 129 mg of aspartame and 13mg of acesulfame K (about what you’d find in your favorite diet beverage, regardless of whether you’re a Coke or Pepsi fan). What happened?
After 12 weeks, there was no difference in insulin sensitivity, body weight, or waist circumference. As in, drinking the diet soda was just as “bad” (or good!) as carbonated water.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Effect Insulin?
A couple of years ago, we sent out a popular email that asked the question: Do Artificial Sweeteners F*ck Up Your Insulin?
The answer, according to research, was a resounding no.
Recently, scientists took it a step further. They essentially asked: Do Artificial Sweeteners F*ck up ANYTHING?
They wanted to see if there was any relationship whatsoever between non-caloric sweeteners (such as Stevia, Splenda, or Aspartame) and a myriad of things, like:
- eating behavior
- cardiovascular disease
- kidney disease
They then conducted a meta-analysis of 56 studies, including 21 controlled trials. (A meta-analysis examines a large number of independent studies, and is generally considered a stronger standard of evidence.)
The findings? A whole lot of nothing. Here is part of there scientist’s conclusions:
“Most health outcomes did not seem to have differences between the [artificial sweetener] exposed and unexposed groups. Of the few studies identified for each outcome, most had few participants, were of short duration, and their methodological and reporting quality was limited,” the authors wrote.
It’s important to note: To date, nearly all the scary-sounding headlines about artificial sweeteners have come from research on lab rats. This analysis focused exclusively on research with either healthy or obese adults and children.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Disrupt Gut Health?
While some people still worry about the impact of diet soda on gut health (the microbiome), research is still so young in that area. But, we have found that some artificial sweeteners, while not “dangerous,” can create more GI discomfort than you might like.
According to a recent meta-analysis, only saccharin and sucralose shift the populations of gut microbiota.
Or, maybe more importantly for your comfort of being around others, some artificial sweeteners can make you a bit gassy or even disrupt your normal pooping experience. (Yeah, we just said poop. It’s a first on this blog).
But, not all artificial sweeteners are created equal. The one’s to watch out for include:
Are There Reasons To Avoid Artificial Sweeteners?
Like any food, there will be great reasons for you to avoid artificial sweeteners. For example, if you drink diet soda and it makes you feel like crap, then don’t drink it. That doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad; just means it’s a bad fit for you. This goes for any food. You don’t need science to tell you what makes you feel your best.
What’s more, it’s also possible — pending several factors — that artificial sweeteners can affect some people’s neurobiology and make them crave sweet stuff.
This is not to say it makes you gain weight. Just as the reduction in appetite some experience when drinking diet soda doesn’t guarantee weight loss, the potential of increasing cravings doesn’t ensure weight gain.
But, if you find yourself with an insatiable need for sugar, this could be a reason.
The Final Verdict on Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are misunderstood, and dozens of studies show that they are fairly neutral for most people, and more likely to help with fat loss than hurt (if that’s your goal).
Put more simply, “Not Good, Not Bad,” as the New York Times declared.
As far as we know now (and this stuff has been tested a lot) if you drink diet soda in moderation, there’s no reason to fear your diet soda consumption.
If safety is your concern (it’s always ours), the overwhelming majority of governing health bodies around the world approve of artificial sweeteners, including:
- The Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA),
- The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA),
- The National Cancer Institute
- The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
- The World Health Organization (WHO)
- The Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).
Or, as a 2019 review paper revealed:
“A few rodent studies with saccharin have reported changes in the gut microbiome, but primarily at high doses that bear no relevance to human consumption. This and other studies suggesting an effect of low/no-calorie sweeteners (LNCS) on the gut microbiota were found to show no evidence of an actual adverse effect on human health.
If diet beverages or artificial sweeteners find their way into your healthy eating plan and it works for you, there’s no compelling reason to give them up. But, if they aren’t things you eat, there’s no reason to start, either.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.