Artificial sweetners may lead to weight gain

Representational Image

Considering the potential risks, lead author Meghan Azad says it's not a bad idea to avoid products containing nonnutritive sweeteners - including artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose and stevioside, a natural sweetener derived from stevia plants - until researchers know more about their long-term effects. Quite the contrary, it seems that people who use the sweeteners on a regular basis are more prone to developing health issues although it is not clear whether there is a direct causation involved.

Numerous clinical trials this study drew on didn't align closely with the way people consume such sweeteners in the real world - for instance, trials generally give subjects diet soda or sweetener capsules, while ignoring other sources, such as food. Another study published earlier this year found that a quarter of US children and 41 percent of adults reported consuming them, majority once per day.

They found no consistent effect of artificial sweeteners on weight loss - with trials suggesting they may actually harm the metabolism.

The review, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, looked at 37 studies.

Both types of studies have their pluses and limitations. "I used to be a person who put Splenda in my coffee every day", she says.

There was no link between sugary beverages and either of the illnesses - although the researchers aren't encouraging us to drink them either.

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Most of the participants in the randomized trials were on a weight-loss program, and taken together, the results showed no significant impact of sweetener use on body mass index. There was a 32 percent higher chance of cardiovascular events for the heaviest versus lightest users. It also says that obesity is complex, with many causes and requiring "personalized, multifactorial and multidisciplinary approaches using a variety of tools". However, other experts say there's not enough evidence to recommend abstaining from these sugar substitutes, noting they're approved by Health Canada. Unfortunately, that's not how these sweeteners are typically used. Sylvetsky Meni wasn't involved in this study, but was an author of the study on the prevalence of sweetener use.

Because artificial sweeteners have been associated with health problems, experts have several working theories to explain the link. Some researchers also believe that sweeteners may interfere with the body's mechanisms for metabolizing sugar.

"More research is definitely needed", says Azad. "People need to be reducing their overall intake of sweeteners whether they have calories or not", says Swithers.

It's been said time and time again: dieters turn to diet soda or other sugar-free products but end up compensating for zero-calorie drinks by eating more. But that's a very different message than outright recommending sweeteners for weight loss or better health, she says.

One problems with some of the artificial sweetener research is that it had been funded by industry.

The experiment is meant to investigate the hypothesis that artificial sweeteners shift the gut flora in a way that predisposes us to obesity.

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