In the world of health and wellness, subbing in artificial sweeteners for sugar is just about everywhere you look. Zero, calorie free, low calorie, no calorie, these are terms used to entice consumers to make the switch.
The question I've always asked is, are sugar substitutes better than the real deal and how do they affect your gut health? So let's dive in together!
Let's first start with why sugar isn't great for you.
Did you know that too much sugar can be bad for your body as a whole?
Sugar triggers higher amounts of dopamine to be released in your brain which can lead to increased sugar cravings and a constant "need" for more sugary foods and drinks.
Did you know that diets high in sugar can cause you to be more susceptible to depression?
Bacteria that cause cavities love to eat sugar lingering in your mouth after you eat something sweet.
Eating lots of sweets has been shown to worsen joint pain because of the inflammation they cause in the body. Plus, studies show that sugar consumption can increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Excess sugar attaches to proteins in your bloodstream and creates harmful molecules called “AGEs,” or advanced glycation end products. These molecules do exactly what they sound like they do: age your skin. They have been shown to damage collagen and elastin in your skin -- protein fibers that keep your skin firm and youthful. The result? Wrinkles and saggy skin.
An abundance of added sugar likely contains fructose or high fructose corn syrup. Fructose is process in the liver and in large amounts can damage the liver. When fructose is broken down in the liver it is transformed into fat.
When you eat excess sugar, the extra insulin in your bloodstream can affect your arteries all over your body. It causes their walls to get inflamed, grow thicker than normal and more stiff, this stresses your heart and damages it over time. This can lead to heart disease, like heart failure, heart attacks, and strokes. Research also suggests that eating less sugar can help lower blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease. Plus, people who eat a lot of added sugar (where at least 25% of their calories comes from added sugar) are twice as likely to die of heart disease as those whose diets include less than 10% of total calories from added sugar.
When you eat, your pancreas pumps out insulin. But if you’re eating way too much sugar and your body stops responding properly to insulin, your pancreas starts pumping out even more insulin. Eventually, your overworked pancreas will break down and your blood sugar levels will rise, setting you up for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
If you have diabetes, too much sugar can lead to kidney damage. The kidneys play an important role in filtering your blood. Once blood sugar levels reach a certain amount, the kidneys start to release excess sugar into your urine. If left uncontrolled, diabetes can damage the kidneys, which prevents them from doing their job in filtering out waste in your blood. This can lead to kidney failure.
Your Body Weight
This probably isn’t news to you, but the more sugar you eat, the more you’ll weigh. Research shows that people who drink sugar-sweetened beverages tend to weigh more -- and be at higher risk for type 2 diabetes -- than those who don’t. One study even found that people who increased their sugar intake gained about 1.7 pounds in less than 2 months. Excess amounts of sugar can inflame fat cells causing them to release chemicals that increase weight.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that are added to foods and drinks to make them taste sweet. They provide that sweetness without any extra calories, making them an appealing choice for people who are trying to lose weight. All sorts of everyday foods and products contain artificial sweeteners, including candy, soda, toothpaste and chewing gum. However, in recent years artificial sweeteners have generated controversy.
People are starting to question whether they are as safe and healthy as scientists first thought. One of their potential problems is that they may disrupt the balance of beneficial bacteria in your gut. Most artificial sweeteners travel through your digestive system undigested and pass out of your body unchanged (10Trusted Source). Because of this, scientists have long thought they have no effects on the body.
However, recent research has revealed that artificial sweeteners may influence your health by changing the balance of bacteria in your gut.
Artificial Sweeteners May Change the Balance of Your Gut Bacteria Most artificial sweeteners travel through your digestive system undigested and pass out of your body unchanged. Because of this, scientists have long thought they have no effects on the body. However, recent research has revealed that artificial sweeteners may influence your health by changing the balance of bacteria in your gut.
Scientists have found that animals fed artificial sweeteners experience changes to their gut bacteria. The researchers tested sweeteners including Splenda, acesulfame potassium, aspartame and saccharin. In one study, scientists found that when mice ate the sweetener saccharin, the numbers and types of bacteria in their guts changed, including a reduction in some beneficial bacteria. Interestingly, in the same experiment, these changes weren’t seen in the mice fed sugar water. The researchers also noted that people who eat artificial sweeteners have different profiles of bacteria in their guts than those who don’t.
However, the effects of artificial sweeteners on gut bacteria may vary widely from person to person. Initial human studies have indicated that only some people may experience changes to their gut bacteria and health when they consume these sweeteners.
If you are concerned, your healthiest option is to reduce your consumption of both sugar and artificial sweeteners. Should You Eat Artificial Sweeteners? The short-term use of artificial sweeteners hasn’t been shown to be harmful. They may help you reduce your calorie intake and protect your teeth, especially if you consume a lot of sugar. However, evidence on their long-term safety is mixed, and they may disrupt the balance of your gut bacteria. Overall, there are pros and cons to artificial sweeteners, and whether you should consume them comes down to individual choice.
Articles for research:
Palmnäs MS, Cowan TE, Bomhof MR, et al. Low-dose aspartame consumption differentially affects gut microbiota-host metabolic interactions in the diet-induced obese rat. PLoS One. 2014;9(10):e109841. Published 2014 Oct 14. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0109841
Bian X, Chi L, Gao B, Tu P, Ru H, Lu K. The artificial sweetener acesulfame potassium affects the gut microbiome and body weight gain in CD-1 mice. PLoS One. 2017;12(6):e0178426. Published 2017 Jun 8. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0178426
Suez J, Korem T, Zilberman-Schapira G, Segal E, Elinav E. Non-caloric artificial sweeteners and the microbiome: findings and challenges. Gut Microbes. 2015;6(2):149-155. doi:10.1080/19490976.2015.1017700
Turnbaugh PJ, Ley RE, Mahowald MA, Magrini V, Mardis ER, Gordon JI. An obesity-associated gut microbiome with increased capacity for energy harvest. Nature. 2006;444(7122):1027-1031. doi:10.1038/nature05414
Patterson E, Ryan PM, Cryan JF, et al. Gut microbiota, obesity and diabetes. Postgrad Med J. 2016;92(1087):286-300. doi:10.1136/postgradmedj-2015-133285
Ridaura VK, Faith JJ, Rey FE, et al. Gut microbiota from twins discordant for obesity modulate metabolism in mice. Science. 2013;341(6150):1241214. doi:10.1126/science.1241214