Artificial sweeteners, sometimes touted as a healthier alternative to sugar, are used for calorie-free sweetening in products like diet sodas, chewing gum, and sugar-free candy. However, amidst their ongoing popularity, concerns have emerged about their potential effects on gut health. In this article, we’re going to cut through the noise and help you understand exactly what artificial sweeteners are doing to your body.
A few months ago, I was working with a health-conscious client who was determined to cut down her sugar intake. She decided to switch to artificial sweeteners to satisfy her sweet tooth while avoiding the extra calories. At first, she was thrilled with the results. She could enjoy her favorite desserts and beverages without worrying about the impact on her waistline.
However, as time went on, she began to notice that her cravings for sweet foods actually seemed to be increasing. She found herself reaching for more and more artificially sweetened treats throughout the day. Concerned about this unexpected development, she reached out to me for guidance.
After discussing her habits and doing some research, we discovered that the intense sweetness of artificial sweeteners might be influencing her taste preferences. Studies have suggested that these sweeteners can lead to heightened cravings for sugary foods because they activate the brain’s reward centers without providing the expected caloric energy.
Armed with this information, she decided to gradually reduce her consumption of artificial sweeteners and focus on more whole, naturally sweet foods like fruits. Over time, her cravings diminished, and she developed a healthier relationship with sweets.
This anecdote illustrates the complexities of using artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute and the importance of being mindful of their potential impact on cravings and overall dietary choices.
Your gut microbiome is intricately connected to your overall health and well-being. An imbalance in gut bacteria can lead to inflammation, impaired immunity, mood disorders, hormonal imbalance, and weight gain (1). According to a study in the journal Advanced Nutrition, artificial sweeteners disrupt the gut microbiome and its ability to effectively process nutrients.
They actually decrease gut bacteria such as Akkermansia muciniphila and Lactobacillus, both of which help maintain the gut lining and support metabolism (2).
What’s more, studies are now finding that artificial sweeteners also negatively impact the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar, which ironically can lead to the very consequences that most people are trying to avoid by choosing sugar-free products: namely weight gain and diabetes (3).
In a 2022 study published in the journal Cell, 120 healthy adults were split into six groups. One group was given no sweetener, one was simply given glucose, and the remaining groups were given common artificial sweeteners in doses well below acceptable daily limits. After two weeks, the researchers compared the gut microbes, blood sugar levels, and other health markers of each group.
The study found that each artificial sweetener significantly changed the types and numbers of microbes in the gut and mouth as well as negative changes in blood sugar regulation, particularly for those participants who consumed saccharin and sucralose, while the two groups who received no sweetener or only glucose had no changes in their microbiome.
The researchers then transplanted gut microbes from study participants whose microbiome was strongly impacted by sucralose into mice and fascinatingly, the mice developed similar disruptions in blood sugar control. It seemed the microbes were communicating with the mice in a way that negatively changed their health.
So, while artificial sweeteners are approved as safe for consumption by regulatory agencies, their long-term and negative effects on gut health are still a subject of ongoing research. In the pursuit of healthier living, it’s essential to be mindful of the choices we make, especially when it comes to our gut health.
Artificial sweeteners may offer a sweet fix without the added calories, but their impact on our gut microbiota warrants a second thought before reaching for that “sugar-free” product. Opting for a natural alternative like monk fruit, or using small amounts of natural sweeteners like honey, blackstrap molasses, or maple syrup may be a better option for those seeking sweetness without the potential risks associated with artificial sweeteners.
Are you ready to take control of your health?
Consider working with a trained nutritionist.