Can Artificial Sweeteners Make You Hungry?

Why Is There So Much Confusion About Artificial Sweeteners? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Artificial SweetenersWhen artificial sweeteners were first introduced over 100 years ago, we were promised they would end obesity. We didn’t have to change our diets. We could just substitute calorie-free artificial sweeteners for sugar in all our favorite foods.

Since then, both consumption of artificial sweeteners and obesity have skyrocketed in this country. For example, in just the past 20 years:

  • The consumption of artificial sweeteners has increased by 54%, and…
  • The percentage of obese Americans has increased by 41%.

Today, over 40% of Americans are obese, and almost 10% of Americans are severely obese. That is a 4-fold increase since 1960!

Clearly, something isn’t working. Artificial sweeteners are not the magic solution we once thought they would be.

However, as I have told you before, association does not prove causation. Therefore, two important questions are:

  1. Are we consuming more artificially sweetened foods and drinks because more of us have become obese, or…

2) Do artificial sweeteners cause obesity?

Unfortunately, hundreds of clinical studies on this topic have not provided a definitive answer. For example, when we look at studies on diet sodas:

When the studies are tightly controlled by dietitians so that the people consuming diet sodas don’t add any extra calories to their diet, the results are exactly as expected. People consuming diet sodas lose weight compared to people drinking regular sodas.

However, the results are different in the real world where you don’t have a dietitian looking over your shoulder. In these studies, diet sodas are just as likely to cause weight gain as regular sodas.

As Barry Popkin, a colleague at the University of North Carolina, put it” “The problem is that we [Americans] areNo Fast Food using diet sodas to wash down our Big Macs and fries.” In short, people drinking diet sodas tend to increase their caloric intake by adding other foods to their diet. Even worse, the added foods aren’t usually fruits and vegetables. They are highly processed junk foods.

In other words, the suspicion is that artificial sweeteners may cause you to overeat. Various mechanisms for this effect have been proposed. For example, it has been proposed that artificial sweeteners may:

  • Increase your appetite.
  • Interfere with blood sugar control.
  • Increase your cravings for sweets.
  • Alter your gut bacteria.

Unfortunately, clinical studies designed to test these hypotheses have produced inconsistent results. So, we are left with the question:

3) Why are studies on artificial sweeteners so confusing? 

A recent clinical study (AG Yunker et al, JAMA Network Open, 4(9):e2126313, 2021) sheds light on all 3 of these important questions.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was called the “Brain Response to Sugar” study. It was designed to test the hypothesis that previous studies of artificial sweeteners may have provided misleading results because they didn’t account for the sex and BMI (a measure of obesity) of the study participants.

Many previous studies had primarily enrolled male, ideal weight participants. This study hypothesized that the response to artificial sweeteners might be different in female, overweight participants.

This study recruited 76 participants from the Southern California area between July 2016 and March 2020, when recruitment was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The characteristics of the participants were:

  • 18-35 years old.
  • Weight stable for at least 3 months before the study.
  • Not taking medications and no history of eating disorders, diabetes, or other diseases.
  • 42% male and 58% female.
  • 37% healthy weight, 32% overweight, and 31% obese.
  • 40% included artificial sweeteners in their diet prior to the study, 60% did not.

The study was what is called a “within-participant randomized crossover trial”. Simply put, this means that each participant served as their own control. Here is how it worked:

  • Each participant came to the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroimaging Center three times. They arrived at the testing center at 8 AM after an overnight fast.
    • They drank either 75 grams of sucrose in 300 mL of water, enough sucralose in 300 mL of water to provide equivalent sweetness, or 300 mL of plain water at the beginning of each visit. The order in which the drinks were administered was randomized.
  • At 20 minutes after each drink, the participants were placed into an MRI machine shown various food and non-food images.
    • Four high-calorie food images (2 sweet and 2 savory), 4 low-calorie food images, and 4 non-food images were shown to the participants in random order.
    • As the images were shown, the MRI scanned the medial frontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex, regions of the brain associated with appetite and hunger. Specifically, these are regions of the brain that affect:
      • Conditioned motivation to eat.
      • The reward value associated with food cues.
      • In addition, greater food cue reactivity in these regions of the brain has been shown to be associated with obesity.
  • At 125 minutes after each drink, the participants were allowed to select their meal from a buffet table, and the calories consumed was recorded.

Can Artificial Sweeteners Make You Hungry?

HungryHere are the results of the study:

  • There was no overall difference in brain activity in the regions of the brain associated with appetite, hunger, and desire for high-calorie foods following the sucralose and sucrose drinks. However:
    • For participants who were obese, high-calorie savory food images elicited greater brain activity in participants who had consumed sucralose than in participants who had consumed sucrose drinks. This difference was not seen in patients who were normal weight or overweight.
    • For female participants, high-calorie sweet and savory food images elicited greater brain activity in participants who had consumed sucralose than in participants who had consumed sucrose drinks. This difference was not seen in male patients.
    • These differences were not small. The effect of sucralose on brain activity in regions that control appetite and hunger was several-fold greater than the effect sucrose on brain activity in these regions.
    • And as you might expect, the different response to sucralose and sucrose was greatest for women who were obese.
  • Participants consumed more calories at the buffet table after the sucralose drink than after the sucrose drink.
    • There was no significant effect of weight on the differential response to sucralose and sucrose. However:
    • The differential response to sucralose and sucrose was larger for female participants than for the whole group.
  • These results are consistent with previous studies suggesting that appetite responses to food cues might be greater in females and individuals with obesity. However, this was the first study designed to directly test this hypothesis.

The authors concluded, “Our findings indicate that female individuals and those who are obese, and especially female individuals with obesity, might be particularly sensitive to greater neural responsivity elicited by sucralose compared to sucrose consumption. This study highlights the need to consider individual biologic factors in research studies and potentially dietary recommendations regarding the use and efficacy of non-nutritive sweeteners [artificial sweeteners] for body weight management.”

[Note: You may have noticed that the authors extrapolated from their data on sucralose to all artificial sweeteners. Is this extrapolation valid? The short answer is, “We don’t know”. Most of the mechanistic studies have been done with sucralose, but some studies suggest these same effects may be seen with other artificial sweeteners.]

Why Is There So Much Confusion About Artificial Sweeteners?

confusionIt seems like a “no brainer” that zero calorie drinks and reduced calorie foods would reduce weight gain and promote weight loss. But that just doesn’t seem to happen in the real world. Why is that?

  • Is it psychological? Do we feel so virtuous about consuming artificially sweetened foods and drinks that we allow ourselves to splurge on high-calorie junk foods?
  • Or is it physiological? Do artificial sweeteners increase our appetite for high-calorie junk foods?

Unfortunately, clinical studies have not been much help. Some studies suggest that artificial sweeteners increase our appetite for high-calorie foods, while others suggest they don’t. Clinical studies are supposed to resolve questions like these. Why have they been so confusing?

Part of the problem is that some of the studies on artificial sweeteners have been too small and/or too poorly designed to provide clear-cut answers. However, even well-designed clinical studies have two fundamental flaws:

  • Clinical studies are based on averages. They assume everyone is the same.
    • This study, and others like it, show the flaw in that assumption.
      • It appears that artificial sweeteners affect the appetite for high calorie foods more in individuals who are obese than in individuals who are normal weight or slightly overweight.
      • Artificial sweeteners also affect the appetite for high calorie foods more for females than for males.
      • What about age and ethnicity? Is the effect of artificial sweeteners on the appetite for high calorie foods affected by age or ethnicity? No one knows.
      • What about genetics? Is the effect of artificial sweeteners dependent on our genetic background? No one knows.
      • What about our microbiome? Again, no one knows.
  • Gold standard clinical studies only change one variable at a time. In studies of artificial sweeteners, the variable is artificial sweetener versus sugar. But we don’t eat just artificial sweeteners or sugar. We eat foods containing artificial sweeteners or sugar. Do the foods we eat alter the effect of the artificial sweeteners on appetite?
    • One recent study) suggests they might. It found that consumption of sucralose plus easily digested carbohydrate (such as might be found in artificially sweetened junk foods) may increase the craving for sweets more than consumption of either sucralose or sucrose alone.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Simply put, the initial promise of artificial sweeteners as a solution to the obesity epidemic and the alarming increase in diabetes has not been borne out by either clinical studies or real-life experience.

And I have not addressed the potential risks of artificial sweeteners in this article. However, in my opinion, something that has potential risks, no matter how small, and no proven benefit is something to avoid.

But don’t take my word for it. As I reported in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor” article, an international consortium of scientists recently reviewed all the pertinent literature and published a position paper on whether artificially sweetened beverages were of value in responding to the global obesity crisis. They concluded:

  • “In summary, the available evidence…does not consistently demonstrate that artificially-sweetened beverages are effective for weight loss or preventing metabolic abnormalities [pre-diabetes and diabetes]. Evidence on the impact of artificially-sweetened beverages on child health is even more limited and inconclusive than in adults.”
  • “The absence of evidence to support the role of artificially sweetened beverages in preventing weight gain and the lack of studies on their long-term effects on health strengthen the position that artificially-sweetened beverages should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet.”

The Bottom Line

When artificial sweeteners were first introduced over 100 years ago, we were promised they would end obesity. We didn’t have to change our diets. We could just substitute calorie-free artificial sweeteners for sugar in all our favorite foods.

Since then, both consumption of artificial sweeteners and obesity have skyrocketed in this country. Clearly, something isn’t working. Artificial sweeteners are not the magic solution we once thought they would be.

In recent years some studies have suggested that the reason that artificial sweeteners have failed us is that they stimulate our appetite for high calorie foods. However, this idea has been controversial. Some studies have supported it. Others have not.

Why have the clinical studies been so confusing? The study I describe in this article was designed to test the hypothesis that previous studies of artificial sweeteners may have provided misleading results because they didn’t account for the sex and BMI (a measure of obesity) of the study participants.

Many previous studies had primarily enrolled male, ideal weight participants. This study hypothesized that the response to artificial sweeteners might be different in female, overweight participants. The study found:

  • There was no overall difference in brain activity in the regions of the brain associated with appetite, hunger, and desire for high-calorie foods following consumption of drinks containing sucralose or sucrose. However:
    • For participants who were obese, high-calorie savory food images elicited greater brain activity in participants who had consumed sucralose than in participants who had consumed sucrose drinks.
    • For female participants, high-calorie sweet and savory food images elicited greater brain activity in participants who had consumed sucralose than in participants who had consumed sucrose drinks.
    • These differences were not small. The effect of sucralose on brain activity in regions that control appetite and hunger was several-fold greater than the effect sucrose on brain activity in those regions.
  • Participants consumed more calories at the buffet table after the sucralose drink than after the sucrose drink.
    • The differential response to sucralose and sucrose was larger for female participants than for the whole group.
  • These results are consistent with previous studies suggesting that appetite responses to food cues might be greater in females and individuals with obesity. However, this was the first study designed to directly test this hypothesis.

The authors concluded, “Our findings indicate that female individuals and those who are obese, and especially female individuals with obesity, might be particularly sensitive to greater neural responsivity elicited by sucralose compared to sucrose consumption. This study highlights the need to consider individual biologic factors in research studies and potentially dietary recommendations regarding the use and efficacy of non-nutritive sweeteners [eg, artificial sweeteners] for body weight management.”

For more details about this study and what it means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

What Is Nutritionism?

In Defense Of FoodRecently, I have been reading Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food”. Yes, I know the book has been around for a long time. Normally I read the scientific literature rather than popular health books. However, in the past few weeks I have had a lot more time to read books, so I decided to read this one.

Some of the things he says are “off the wall”. As he readily admits, he isn’t a scientist or a medical doctor. However, a lot of what he says is “right on”. He echoes many of the things I have been talking about for years. But he does a masterful job of pulling everything together into a framework he calls “nutritionism”.

If you have a chance, I highly recommend that you read his book.

I will briefly summarize his discussion of nutritionism below. I will also share some scientific support for what he is saying. Finally, I will close by sharing what the Bible says on the subject.

What Is Nutritionism?

Low Fat LabelSimply put, nutritionism is the belief that we can understand food solely in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents and our requirements for them. I use the term “belief” purposely. As Michael Pollan puts it: “As the ‘-ism’ suggests, nutritionism is not a scientific subject, but an ideology.”

What Michael Pollan is referring to is taking food constituents like saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics and labeling them as either “good” or “bad”.

As he points out, that leads to debacles like the creation of margarine as a substitute for butter. Of course, everyone reading this article knows that we subsequently found out that the trans fat in margarine was worse for us than the saturated fat in butter. He offers many other examples like this.

He also points out that the nutritionism concept has given free rein to the food industry to replace whole foods with processed foods that are cholesterol-free, sugar-free, low-fat, low-carb, or high in fiber, omega-3s, etc. He says that these foods are seldom healthier than the foods they replace. I agree.

Finally, he points out that the scientific support for the classification of individual ingredients or foods as “good” or “bad” is weak. That’s because when scientists design a study that removes a chemical constituent or a food from the diet, they have to replace it with something. And what they replace it with determines the outcome of the study. I give some examples of this in the next section.

The essence of Michael Pollan’s message is:

  • The effect of an individual nutrient or chemical constituent on your health depends on the food it is found in. Forget the fancy nutrition labels. Whole foods are almost always healthier than processed foods.
  • The effect of a food or food constituent on your health also depends on your overall diet. We should be thinking about healthy diets rather than the latest “magical” or “forbidden” food.

I will discuss these points below.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

Question MarkNow, let’s get to the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” If we are talking about whole foods, the short answer is “None”. As I said in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”.

For example, if we are talking about plant foods, each plant food group:

  • Has a unique blend of vitamins and minerals.
  • Has a unique blend of phytonutrients.
  • Has a unique blend of fiber.
  • Supports the growth of a unique combination of beneficial gut bacteria.
  • Dr Strangelove and his friends are telling you to eliminate whole grains, fruits, and legumes (beans) from your diet. Recent studies suggest that might not be a good idea. Here is one example.

If we are talking about animal foods, each animal food group:

  • Has a unique blend of vitamins and minerals.
  • May have unique components that are important for our health. [Note: This is an active area of research. Theories have been proposed for which components in animal foods may be important for our health, but they have not been confirmed.]
  • Vegan purists will tell you that you have no need for meat and dairy foods. Recent studies suggest otherwise. Here is one example.

With that as background, let’s turn our attention to nutritionism and look at some of science behind claims that certain food components are either good for us or bad for us.

Saturated Fat. Saturated fat is the poster child for nutritionism.lowfat

First, we were told by the American Heart Association and other health organizations that saturated fat was bad for us. Recently Dr. Strangelove and his friends are telling us that saturated fat is good for us. Instead of limiting saturated fat, we should be limiting carbs by cutting out fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Both cite clinical studies to support their claims. How can this be?

Perhaps a little history is in order. When the American Heart Association recommended that we decrease intake of saturated fat, they were envisioning that we would replace it with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat in the context of a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. That never happened.

Big Food quickly realized that if the American public were to follow the AHA guidelines, it would be disastrous for their bottom line. So, they sprang into action. They mixed sugar, white flour, and a witch’s brew of chemicals to create highly processed, low fat “foods”. Then they told the American public, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods. We have created low fat alternatives.”

This is the essence of what Michael Pollan refers to as nutritionism. By marketing their fake foods as low fat Big Food created the halo of health. In fact, Big Food’s fake foods were less healthy than the foods they replaced. Americans got fatter and sicker.

Now let’s look at the conflicting claims that saturated fat is bad for us or good for us. How can clinical studies disagree on such an important question? The answer is simple. It depends on what you replace it with. You need to consider saturated fat intake in the context of the overall diet.

I discussed this in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, but let me summarize it briefly here. The American Heart Association tells us that replacing half of the saturated fat in a typical American diet with:

  • Trans fats, increases heart disease risk by 5%.
  • Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American Diet), slightly increases heart disease risk.
  • Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits & vegetables), decreases heart disease risk by 9%.
  • Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), decreases heart disease risk by 15%.
  • Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils and fish oil), decreases heart disease risk by 25%.
  • Unsaturated fats in the context of a Mediterranean diet, decreases heart disease risk by 45%.

My advice: Saturated fat is neither good for you nor bad for you. A little bit of saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet is fine. A lot of saturated fat in the context of an unhealthy diet is problematic.

fatty steakRed Meat. Is red meat bad for you? Like saturated fat, it depends on the amount of red meat and the overall diet. I covered this in detail in “Slaying The Food Myths”, but let me summarize briefly here:

According to the World Health Organization, red meat is a probable carcinogen. If we look at the postulated mechanisms by which it causes cancer, they can be mostly neutralized by components of various plant foods.

My advice: An 8-ounce steak with fries and a soda is probably bad for you. Three ounces of that same steak in a green salad or stir fry may be good for you.

I should make one other point while I am on the topic. Dr. Strangelove and his friends have been telling you that grass-fed beef is better for you than conventionally raised beef. Once again, that is nutritionism.  Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and high in omega-3s than conventionally raised beef. That may be better for your heart, but it has no effect on the cancer-causing potential of red meat. It doesn’t give the license to eat 8-ounce steaks on a regular basis. You still want to aim for 3-ounces of that grass-fed beef in a green salad or stir fry. 

High-Fructose Corn Syrup. This one seems to be on everyone’s “naughty list”. You are being told to read labels, and if the food has high-fructose corn syrup on the label, put it back on the shelf. But is that good advice?

It turns out that all the studies on the bad effects of high-fructose corn syrup have been done with sodas and highly processed foods. This should be your first clue.

Of course, as soon as high-fructose corn syrup gained its “bad” reputation, Big Food started replacing it with Sugar Comparisons“heathier” sugars. Does that make those foods healthier?

The answer is a clear “No”. Both chemically and biologically, high-fructose corn syrup is identical to sucrose (table sugar), honey, molasses, maple syrup, coconut sugar, date sugar, or grape juice concentrate. Agave sugar is even higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. This is your second clue.

Substituting these sugars for high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t turn sodas and processed foods into health foods. This is nutritionism at its worst.

My advice: Forget reading the label. Forget trying to avoid foods with high-fructose corn syrup. Avoid sodas and processed foods instead.

Sugar. Once the public started to realize that natural sugars in processed foods were just as bad for us as high-fructose corn syrup, sugars became “bad”. We were told to avoid all foods containing sugar in any form. In fact, we were told we needed to become “label detectives” and recognize all the deceptive ways that sugar could be hidden on the label.

Apple With Nutrition LabelI have discussed this in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

Let me just summarize that article with one quote, “It’s not the sugar. It’s the food. There is the same amount and same types of sugar in an 8-ounce soda and a medium apple. Sodas are bad for you, and apples are good for you.” If you are wondering why that is, I have covered it in another issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.

Before leaving this subject, I should mention that nutritionism has risen its ugly head here as well. Big Food has struck again. They have replaced sugar with a variety of artificial sweeteners.

Once again, nutritionism has failed. Those artificially sweetened sodas and processed foods are no healthier and no more likely to help you keep the weight off than the sugar-sweetened foods they replace. I have covered the science behind that statement in several previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here is one example.

My advice: Forget about sugar phobia. You don’t need to become a label detective. Just avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweet processed foods. Get your sugar in its natural form in fruits and other whole foods.

low carb dietCarbs. Dr. Strangelove and his friends are now telling you that you need to avoid all carbs. That is pure nutritionism. Carbs are neither good nor bad. It depends on the type of carb and what you replace it with.

Once again, clinical studies have given conflicting outcomes. Each side of the carbohydrate debate can provide clinical studies to support their position. How can that be? The answer is simple. It depends on what assumptions went into the design of the clinical studies. I have written several articles on this topic in “Health Tips From the Professor”, but let me give you one example here.

In this example, I looked at two major studies. The PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology) study included data from 135,000 participants in 18 countries. In this study, the death rate decreased as the % carbohydrate in the diet decreased. The low-carb enthusiasts were doing a victory dance.

However, it was followed by a second, even larger study. The ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities) study included 432,000 participants from even more countries. In this study, the death rate decreased as the % carbohydrate decreased to about 40%. Then a curious thing happened. As the % carbohydrate in the diet decreased further, the death rate increased.

How can you explain this discrepancy? When you examine the PURE study:

  • The % carbohydrate only ranged from 70% to 40%.
  • The data for the PURE study was obtained primarily with third world countries. That is an important distinction because:
    • In those countries, it is primarily the well to do that can afford sodas, processed foods, and meat.
    • The poor subsist on what they can grow and inexpensive staples like beans and rice.
  • Simply put, in the PURE study, the type of carbohydrate changed as well as the amount of carbohydrate.
    • At the highest carbohydrate intakes, a significant percentage of the carbohydrate came from sugar and refined grains.
    • At the lowest carbohydrate intakes, most of the carbohydrate intake came from beans, whole grains, and whatever fruits and vegetables they could grow.

When you examine the ARIC study:how much carbohydrates should we eat aric

  • The % carbohydrate ranged from 70% to 20%.
  • The ARIC study added in data from the US and European countries. That is an important distinction because:
    • Low carb diets like Atkins and Keto are popular in these countries. And those are the diets that fall into the 20-40% carbohydrate range.
    • Most people can afford diets that contain a lot of meat in those countries.
  • Simply put, at the lower end of the scale in the ARIC study, people were eating diets rich in meats and saturated fats and eliminating healthy carbohydrate-containing foods like fruits, whole grains and legumes.

My advice: The lesson here is to avoid simplistic nutritionism thinking and focus on diets rather than on foods. When you do that it is clear that carbs aren’t bad for you, it’s unhealthy carbs that are bad for you.

Which Foods Should I Avoid? By now the answer to the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” is clear. Avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (The term processed foods includes convenience foods, junk foods, and most sweets).

What Does This Mean To You?

Questioning ManNow that we are clear on which foods you should avoid, let’s look at the flip side of the coin. Let’s ask, “Which foods should you include in your diet?

As I said at the beginning of this article, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”. We should consider whole foods from all 5 food groups as healthy.

Of course, each of us is different. We all have foods in some food groups that don’t treat us well. Some of us do better with saturated fats or carbs than others. We need to explore and find the foods and diets that work best for us.

However, whenever we assume one diet is best for everyone, we have crossed the line into nutritionism.

What Does The Bible Say?

Let me start this section by saying that I rely on the Bible for spiritual guidance rather than nutritional guidance. However, as part of our church’s Bible reading plan, I was reading 1 Timothy. A passage from 1 Timothy 4:1-5 leapt out at me. It reinforces the theme of Michael Pollan’s book and seems uniquely applicable to the times we live in.

“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They…order people to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

Interesting.

The Bottom Line

In this article, I have discussed the concept of “nutritionism” introduced in Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense Of Food”. He defines nutritionism as the belief that we can understand food solely in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents and our requirements for them.

What Michael Pollan is referring to is taking food constituents like saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics and labeling them as either “good” or “bad”. He points out that when we accept these simplistic labels, we often end up creating foods and diets that are less healthy than the ones we were trying to replace.

At the beginning of the article, I asked the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” I then looked at several foods or food groups we have told to avoid, including saturated fats, red meat, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and carbs. When you look at the science behind these recommendations from the lens of nutritionism, you come to two conclusions:

  • We should avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (The term processed foods includes convenience foods, junk foods, and most sweets).
  • Whole foods from all 5 food groups should be considered as healthy.

Of course, each of us is different. We all have foods in some food groups that don’t treat us well. Some of us do better with saturated fats or carbs than others. We need to explore and find the foods and diets that work best for us.

However, whenever we assume one diet is best for everyone, we have crossed the line into nutritionism.

For more details and a bible verse that supports the theme of Michael Pollan’s book and seems uniquely applicable to the times we live in, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Why Do Diet Sodas Make You Fat?

Is Mixing Diet Sodas With Carbs Bad For You?

Why Do Sodas Cause Obesity?Many people, and many doctors, believe that diet sodas and artificially sweetened foods are a healthy choice. After all:

  • Cutting calories by drinking diet sodas and eating artificially sweetened foods should help you lose weight.
  • If sugar is the problem for diabetics, diet sodas and artificially sweetened foods should be a healthier choice.

On the surface, these ideas appear to be self-evident. They seem to be “no-brainers”. The truth, however, is more complicated.

When studies are tightly controlled by dietitians so that the people consuming diet sodas don’t add any extra calories to their diet, the results are exactly as expected. People consuming diet sodas lose weight compared to people drinking regular sodas.

However, as I have described in an earlier issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, the results are different in the real world where you don’t have a dietitian looking over your shoulder. In those studies, diet sodas are just as likely to cause weight gain as regular sodas.

As Barry Popkin, a colleague at the University of North Carolina, put it” “The problem is that we [Americans] are using diet sodas to wash down our Big Macs and fries.” In short, people drinking diet sodas tend to increase their caloric intake by adding other foods to their diet. Even worse, the added foods aren’t usually fruits and vegetables. They are highly processed junk foods.

Why is that? The short answer is that nobody knows (more about that later). However, a recent study (JR Dalenberg et al, Cell Metabolism, 31: 493-502, 2020) suggests an unexpected mechanism for the weight gain associated with diet soda consumption. Let’s look at that study.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe study recruited 45 healthy young adults (ages 20-45) who habitually consumed less than 3 diet sodas a month. They were randomly assigned to three groups. The participants in each group came into the testing facility seven times over a span of 2 weeks. Each time they were given 12 ounces of one of three equally sweet tasting beverages in a randomized, double-blind fashion.

  • Group 1 received a sucralose-sweetened drink contained 0.06 grams of sucralose (equivalent to two packets of Splenda).
  • Group 2 received a sugar-sweetened drink contained 7 teaspoons of sucrose (table sugar).
  • Group 3 received a combo drink contained 0.06 grams of sucralose plus 7 teaspoons of maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a water-soluble carbohydrate that does not have a sweet taste.

o   Maltodextrin was used because Splenda and most other commercial sucralose products contain it along with sucralose. You need something to fill up those little sucralose-containing packets.

o   This drink was included as a control. The expectation was that it would give the same results as the sucralose-sweetened drink.

Three measurements were performed prior to and following the 2-week testing period:

  • An oral glucose tolerance test in which participants drink a beverage containing a fixed amount of glucose. Then their blood sugar and blood insulin levels are measured over the next two hours.

o   This is a measure of how well they were able to control their blood sugar levels.

  • A test in which they were given samples that had either a sweet, sour, salty, or savory taste. Then:

o   They were asked to identify each taste and report how strong the taste was.

o   MRI scans of their brains were performed to determine how strongly their brains responded to each of the tastes.

Is Mixing Diet Soda With Carbs Bad For You?

The results were surprising. The first surprise came when the investigators unblinded the results of the oral glucose tolerance test:

  • Blood sugar and blood insulin responses were unaffected by the 2-week exposure to sugar-sweetened drinks.

o   This was expected.

  • Blood sugar and blood insulin were relatively unaffected by the 2-week exposure to sucralose-sweetened drinks. If anything, the control of blood sugar levels was slightly improved at the end of two weeks.

o   This was a disappointment for the investigators. One of the prevailing theories is that artificially sweetened beverages alter the blood sugar response. The investigators found no evidence for that idea.

  • Following the 2-week exposure to the combo drinks (sucralose plus maltodextrin), blood sugar levels were unaffected, but blood insulin levels were increased. This implies that more insulin was required to control blood sugar levels. In other words, these participants had developed insulin resistance.

o   This result was unexpected. Remember the investigators had included this drink as a control.

o   The investigators pointed out that the insulin resistance associated with the sucralose-maltodextrin combo could increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity.

  • Because of this unexpected result, the investigators did a follow-up study in which participants were given a maltodextrin-only drink using the same study protocol. The oral glucose tolerance test was unchanged by the 2-week exposure to maltodextrin-only drinks.

When the investigators conducted taste tests, the ability of participants to taste all four flavors was unchanged by a 2-week exposure to any of the drinks.

However, when the investigators did MRI scans to measure the brain’s response to these flavors:

  • A two-week exposure to the sucralose plus maltodextrin drinks reduced the brain’s response to sweet but not to any of the other flavors.

o   In other words, the subjects could still taste sweet flavors, but their brains were not responding to the sweet taste. Since sweetness activates pleasure centers in the brain this could lead to an increased appetite for sweet-tasting foods.

o   This might explain the weight gain that has been observed in many previous studies of diet sodas.

  • Two-week exposures to the other drinks had no effect on the brain’s response to any of the flavors. Once again, this effect was only seen in the sucralose-maltodextrin combination.

The investigators concluded:

  • “Consumption of sucralose combined with carbohydrates impairs insulin sensitivity…and…neural responses to sugar.
  • Insulin sensitivity is not altered by sucralose or carbohydrate consumption alone.
  • The results suggest that consumption of sucralose in the presence of a carbohydrate dysregulates gut-brain regulation of glucose metabolism.”

The investigators pointed out that this could have several adverse consequences. Again, in the words of the authors:

“Similar exposure combinations (artificial sweeteners plus carbohydrates) almost certainly occur in free-living humans, especially if one considers the consumption of a diet drink along with a meal. This raises the possibility that the combination effect may be a major contributor to the rise in incidence of type 2 diabetes and obesity. If so, addition of artificial sweeteners to increase the sweetness of carbohydrate-containing food and beverages should be discouraged and consumption of diet drinks with meals should be counseled against.”

Why Do Diet Sodas Make You Fat?

As I mentioned at the start of this article, there are a lot of hypotheses as to why diet sodas make us fat. These hypotheses break down into two classifications: psychological and physiological.

The psychological hypothesis is easiest to explain. Essentially, it goes like this: We feel virtuous for choosing a zero-calorie sweetener, so we allow ourselves to eat more of our favorite foods. It is unlikely that this hypothesis holds for all diet soda drinkers. However, it is also hard to exclude it as at least part of the explanation for the food overconsumption associated with diet soda use.

There are multiple physiological hypotheses. Most of them are complicated, but here are simplified explanations of the three most popular hypotheses:

  • The sweet taste of artificial sweeteners tricks the brain into triggering insulin release by the pancreas. This causes blood sugar levels to plummet, which increases appetite.
  • The sweet taste of artificial sweeteners is not appropriately recognized by the brain. This diminishes release of hormones that suppress appetite.
  • Artificial sweeteners interfere with insulin signaling pathways, which leads to insulin resistance.

There is some evidence for and against each of these hypotheses.

However, this study introduces a new physiological hypothesis – namely that it is the combination of artificial sweeteners and carbohydrates that results in a dysregulation of the normal mechanisms controlling appetite and blood sugar.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Diet Soda DangersLet’s start with the obvious. This is just a hypothesis.

  • This was a very small study. Until it is confirmed by other, larger studies, we don’t know whether it is true.
  • This study only tested sucralose. We don’t know whether this applies to other artificial sweeteners.
  • The study only tested maltodextrin in combination with sucralose. We don’t know whether it applies to other carbohydrates.

Therefore, in discussing how this study applies to you, let’s consider two possibilities – if it is true, and if it is false.

If this hypothesis is true, it is concerning because:

  • We often consume diet sodas with meals. If, for example, we take the earlier example of a diet soda with a Big Mac and fries, both the hamburger bun and the fries are high carbohydrate foods.

 

  • Sucralose and other artificial sweeteners are used in low calorie versions of many carbohydrate rich processed foods.

If this hypothesis is false, it does not change the underlying association of diet soda consumption with weight gain and type 2 diabetes. It is merely an attempt to explain that association. We should still try to eliminate diet sodas and reduce our consumption of artificially sweetened, low calorie foods.

My recommendation is to substitute water and other unsweetened beverages for the diet drinks or sugar sweetened beverages you are currently consuming. If you crave the fizz of sodas, drink carbonated water. If you need more taste, try herbal teas or infuse water with slices of lemon, lime, or your favorite fruit. If you buy commercial brands of flavored water, check the labels carefully. They may contain sugars or artificial sweeteners. Those you want to avoid.

The Bottom Line

Many studies have called into question the assumption that diet sodas and diet foods help us lose weight. In fact, most of these studies show that diet soda consumption is associated with weight gain rather than weight loss.

There are many hypotheses to explain this association, but none of them have been proven at present.

This study introduces a new hypothesis – namely that the combination of artificial sweeteners and carbohydrates results in a dysregulation of the normal mechanisms controlling appetite and blood sugar. In particular, this study suggested that combining sucralose with carbohydrates caused insulin resistance and reduce the ability of the brain to respond appropriately to sweet tastes.

The authors concluded: “Similar exposure combinations (artificial sweeteners plus carbohydrates) almost certainly occur in free-living humans, especially if one considers the consumption of a diet drink along with a meal. This raises the possibility that the combination effect may be a major contributor to the rise in incidence of type 2 diabetes and obesity. If so, addition of artificial sweeteners to increase the sweetness of carbohydrate-containing food and beverages should be discouraged and consumption of diet drinks with meals should be counseled against.”

If this hypothesis is true, it is concerning because:

  • We often consume diet sodas with meals. If, for example, we take the example of a diet soda with a Big Mac and fries, both the hamburger bun and the fries are high carbohydrate foods.
  • Artificial sweeteners are used in low calorie versions of many carbohydrate rich processed foods.

If this hypothesis is false, it does not change the underlying association of diet soda consumption with weight gain and type 2 diabetes. It is merely an attempt to explain that association. We should still try to eliminate diet sodas and reduce our consumption of artificially sweetened, low calorie foods.

My recommendation is to substitute water and other unsweetened beverages for the diet drinks or sugar sweetened beverages you are currently consuming. If you crave the fizz of sodas, drink carbonated water. If you need more taste, try herbal teas or infuse water with slices of lemon, lime, or your favorite fruit. If you buy commercial brands of flavored water, check the labels carefully. They may contain sugars or artificial sweeteners. Those you want to avoid.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor