Can Artificial Sweeteners Fight Obesity?

February 18, 2020
Traditionally, artificial sweeteners have been considered a beneficial option in the management of obesity. However, is this really the case? Discover the answer in this article.

The word “sweetener” refers to any substance capable of providing a sweet taste. In this article, we’ll focus on calorie-free artificial sweeteners and answer a common question: can these sweeteners fight obesity?

The need for sweet

Throughout history, humans have tended to prefer sweet foods. However, as early as the 18th century, they discovered that sugar is harmful. Around the same time, the stereotypes of female beauty shifted to a slimmer figure.

Both circumstances led to the creation of the first non-caloric sweetener in the 19th century. Consumers were relieved. After all, this seemed to be the solution that would allow them to eat sugary foods without damaging their health.

However, is this true?

Sweeteners are safe for human consumption

Sweeteners have been proven to be safe and suitable for human consumption. However, it’s essential to respect the maximum consumption levels that government agencies establish.

Overall, scientists have proven the benefits of artificial sweeteners regarding the prevention, treatment, and control of excess weight. Specifically, professionals studied their action on insulin, appetite, satiety, food reward system, gut microbiota, and adipocytes, among others. All of these play a part in the development of obesity.

A man drinking tea with stevia.

Provided that you respect the maximum recommended dose, sweeteners are safe for you to consume.

Are they beneficial in the fight against obesity?

Overall, scientific evidence doesn’t support the use of artificial sweeteners in helping fight obesity.

Here are some of the reasons why they’re ineffective:

The mechanism of action of sweeteners on insulin release

Insulin is a hormone the pancreas releases. It transports glucose to glycogen stores and body fat.

Until now, scientists believed that zero-calorie sweeteners weren’t able to stimulate their release. While this is true, there are certain hidden nuances. Sweeteners are directly unable to stimulate insulin production. However, they can do so indirectly. This indirect effect is due to their ability to accelerate gastric emptying and to increase intestinal absorption. Since they’re non-caloric substances, this shouldn’t be a problem.

However, adding them to foods that do contain calories (juices, cookies, biscuits, and dairy products, among others) can lead to excess amounts of glucose in the blood. Therefore, it can lead to an insulin peak.

Zero-calorie artificial sweeteners increase insulin.

Zero-calorie artificial sweeteners can stimulate insulin production indirectly.

Then, unstable glucose levels represent a repeated stimulation of the pancreas to produce insulin. This can lead to what they call “insulin resistance.” In turn, this leads to an increased risk of diabetes mellitus, excess weight, and obesity.

Read more: The Most Effective Natural Remedies for Diabetes

Artificial sweeteners and energy balance

The concept of energy balance refers to the relationship between the calories you consume and expend. A positive energy balance means that you consume more calories than you expend and vice versa.

These sweeteners contain no calories. However, they still predispose people to a positive energy balance. This is because:

  • They boost your appetite and provide less satiety.
  • Their sweet flavor is counterproductive. Repeated exposure to artificial sweeteners increases a person’s dependency on them. If we take into consideration that their sweetness is unattainable by natural foods, it’s clear that people who consume them prefer artificial foods. These generally contain countless empty calories.
  • The idea that they aren’t fattening leads people to consume them more. The result can be increased intake.
  • They reduce the thermic effect of food. This concept refers to the number of calories expended. This happens during the digestion, absorption, and disposal of ingested foods. Its reduction represents a decrease in energy expenditure. That’s why the risk of a positive energy balance is greater.
  • They’re not able to activate the food reward systems. This is the reason why those who consume them need to eat continuously in a relentless pursuit of pleasure.

Artificial sweeteners’ effect on gut microbiota

Gut microbiota refers to the bacteria that live in your digestive tract in a mutualistic relationship. It’s fully established in humans after the age of two. However, it can change throughout life by several factors. Diet is one of them.

Obese people have a characteristic microbiota which, in turn, promotes obesity. Now, we know that artificial sweeteners contribute to the altering of healthy bacteria. 

Gut microbiota.

Non-caloric artificial sweeteners are capable of generating a gut microbiota typical of obese individuals.

Learn more by reading this article: Intestinal Bacteria Imbalance Leads to These 6 Problems

The mechanism of action of artificial sweeteners on fat cells

Finally, the role of artificial sweeteners on the size and number of adipocytes (fat cells) varies.

Overall, it depends on the characteristics of the artificial sweetener as well as those of the consumer. That’s why scientific evidence makes it impossible to conclude here.

However, keeping in mind everything we mentioned, artificial sweeteners aren’t good allies against excess weight and obesity.