Dr. Day is a cardiologist and Medical Director of Heart Rhythm Services at his practice in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowship in cardiology at Stanford University. He is board certified in Cardiology and Cardiac Electrophysiology.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Really Cause Weight Gain?
Once again, artificial sweeteners dominated the medical news this week. This time it was from a study suggesting that artificial sweeteners might cause weight gain and heart disease. In this article, I’ll dissect the latest research and offer a practical approach to artificial sweeteners.
The Latest Artificial Sweetener Study
I really liked the quality of this latest study. The researchers did a great job of trying to make sense of every study that has ever been published about artificial sweeteners.
While most health conscientious people consider artificial sweeteners as harmful, the health food industry has gravitated to stevia as a “healthy” alternative. Fortunately, this study also included stevia.
To make sense of every credible artificial sweetener study that has ever been published, researchers divided these studies into two groups. The first group consisted of randomized controlled trials or RCTs.
RCTs are considered the very most accurate type of a medical study you can do. In RCTs, researchers randomly divide the participants into two groups. This way, you can minimize confounding factors that might give you the wrong results. In this study, researchers included 7 RCTs involving a total of 1,003 people who were then followed closely for an average of six months.
In contrast, this study also reported the results of 30 observational studies involving 405,907 people who were followed for an average of 10 years. While these observational studies aren’t very accurate, they can raise questions about the long-term safety of artificial sweeteners.
What Do RCTs Tell Us About Artificial Sweeteners
From the 1,003 people included from seven randomized controlled trials (RCTs), this study reported that when it comes to weight gain, artificial sweeteners are neutral. In other words, they don’t cause people to gain or lose weight.
Interestingly, when you look at all the studies published from the artificial sweetener companies, these studies almost always show that people lose weight. However, when you look at studies that are not sponsored by artificial sweetener companies, there generally is no weight loss from artificial sweeteners.
Thus, if you can’t give up your daily Diet Coke habit, then you can hold fast to the results from RCTs. At least when you look at the health effects of artificial sweeteners out to six months, they don’t appear to cause weight gain.
However, because RCTs are very costly to do, follow up periods tend to be very short. Thus, with this average follow up of just six months, it is impossible to know if artificial sweeteners put you at risk for other diseases, like diabetes or heart disease.
As you know, most people don’t just drink Diet Coke for six months. Rather, they tend to drink it over a lifetime. This is where the less accurate but long-term observational studies can be helpful.
What Do Observational Studies Tell Us About Artificial Sweeteners?
While artificial sweeteners, including stevia, looked relatively harmless in the six month long randomized controlled trials (RCTs), the results were quite frightening when you look at the 10 year observational studies. Indeed, the 30 observational studies involving 405,907 people paint a completely different picture of artificial sweeteners.
The observational studies clearly linked artificial sweeteners to weight gain over time. Not only do these studies report weight gain but they also show that artificial sweeteners may increase your risk of diabetes by 30%!
If diabetes wasn’t frightening enough, these observational studies also report a 13% increased risk of high blood pressure, a 26% increased risk of a stroke, and a 32% increased risk of heart disease! Clearly, these are all conditions that will shorten your life.
Do You Believe the RCTs or Observational Studies?
So which studies do you believe? Do you believe the very accurate six month small studies which show that artificial sweeteners don’t seem to pose much risk or do you believe the less accurate 10 year long big studies which link artificial sweeteners to many scary diseases?
The truth is that when it comes to your health and longevity, we just don’t understand the long-term effects of these chemicals. Even the “healthy” stevia didn’t do any better than the other artificial sweeteners in this study.
While artificial sweeteners might be “less bad” for you than sugar, that certainly doesn’t make them health foods. When I try to put our “modern foods” into perspective, I like to think about what they would do in Longevity Village.
Artificial Sweeteners in the Longevity Village Diet
It probably goes without saying that you’d be hard-pressed to find a can of soda on a Longevity Villager’s dinner table. Largely because of advertising we’ve been exposed to since childhood, not to mention the addictive combo punch of sugar and caffeine, a lot of people have convinced themselves that their Coke-a-day habit is little more than a minor health indiscretion.
In fact, just a single can of soda pop each day can put you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and overall poor health. If there was an illegal drug that did all these things, we’d call it a menace to society. But because so many of us associate fizzy drinks with the frivolity of childhood, we treat a global health scourge like a treasured friend.
My “buddy drink” was Diet Coke. And while I never assumed it was healthy, I justified my habit by telling myself that it was healthier for me than a regular soft drink. After all, Diet Coke doesn’t have any sugar. And that, I figured, meant it was “less bad.”
Magan, one of the village centenarians we met in our recently published book, The Longevity Plan, was the one who put “less bad” into perspective for me. “If something is bad it is bad,” she said. “Even if the damage is not very much right now, it builds up over time. These are the most dangerous kinds of habits.”
When we make the switch from regular sodas to so-called diet drinks, we might be abusing ourselves a tad less, but we’re not actually doing ourselves any good. What’s worse, because we feel as though we’ve taken steps toward a healthier life, we’ve slowed and sometimes halted progress toward the elimination of unhealthy consumables, which should, of course, be our ultimate goal.
Of course, all of this is assuming that diet drinks are, in fact, less bad for us. And while some would say so the jury is still deliberating on that question, I’d argue we haven’t even finished the trial yet. We’ve been studying artificial sweeteners for more than 140 years, but every year researchers discover something new. What we do know, though, is that these substances may have a similar effect on our metabolism and gut flora as high fructose corn syrup.
Such findings shouldn’t really be that surprising. Most artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than natural sugar. When we expose our bodies to such extremes, we should expect extreme reactions.
That’s not just a lesson when it comes to drinks. There’s simply no extra sugar in the traditional village diet. There are so many foods out there that already pack a sweet punch in their natural state. Because villagers include these foods with almost every meal, they’re simply less inclined to seek out even more sugary foods.
Do You Want to Learn More?
Do you want to learn more about how to free yourself from medical conditions? If so, be sure to pick up a copy of our number 1 Amazon best selling book, The Longevity Plan. This book summarizes everything I have learned from my own health journey and will help you to enjoy great health to age 100!
Until next week’s article, what is your take on artificial sweeteners? Have you found them hard to give up?
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Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.