What substance brings extreme bliss but also kills, is in every kitchen in America but is also more addictive than cocaine? Sugar! This sweet ingredient makes every food more tasty and desirable, but also contributes to weight gain and health issues. So how can we have our cake and eat it too? Just cutting out sweet food and drink isn’t a great option for most of us who feel deprived without it. And we’re justified in feeling that way:

“In both animals and humans, the evidence in the literature shows substantial parallels and overlap between drugs of abuse and sugar, from the standpoint of brain neurochemistry as well as behaviour.”

The article goes on to describe the “drug-like effects, including bingeing, craving, tolerance, withdrawal…reward and opioid effects”. So what are we to do when we are dependent on this cocaine-like substance but we want to get healthier or lose weight?

Enter non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS). These are substances that provide a sweet taste without contributing any calories. They can be artificially produced in a laboratory or can be extracted from plants. Artificial NNS are aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium, and saccharin (Sweet N Low). The main natural NNS are stevia and monk fruit extract (luo han guo).

Most of us paying attention to our weight are using some type of sugar substitute. Is it really better to order the diet soda or lemonade, or get the sugar-free chocolate or snack bar? You might be surprised by what research shows these substitutes actually do to our health.

Metabolic Effects of Artificial Sweeteners
Food is information, not simply calories. When we eat, our food interacts with the complex system that is our body. It influences our immune system, gut, detox organs, hormones, and so forth. When you understand this, you learn to take a deeper look at what you’re eating than just the nutrition facts label.

This point is highlighted by the interaction of artificial sweeteners on our blood sugar. Even though they have no calories or sugar, they still contribute to blood sugar imbalances. A large review that included over 38,000 participants found that while a daily sugar-sweetened beverage was associated with an 18% increase in type 2 diabetes, artificially sweetened beverages were linked to a 25% increased risk!

Increased blood pressure is another negative correlation found. A very large review study determined that there was a 12% increase in hypertension with sugar-sweetened beverages, and a 14% increase with artificially sweetened beverages. Furthermore, artificial NNS contributes to weight gain: prevalence of overweight and obesity is almost double in those who average 3 beverages per day compared to none. Even just 1 beverage daily increases risk of obesity by 21%, whereas a sugary beverage increases it by only 12%.

How is this possible? Again, it’s the way these chemicals interact with the systems of the body. And if you’re familiar with functional medicine, you won’t be surprised that one of the main interactions is with the gut.

Gut Effects of Artificial Sweeteners
Research makes it very clear that artificial sweeteners negatively change the balance of bacteria in the intestines, creating the condition called dysbiosis. Specifically, sucralose and saccharin reduce beneficial bacteria (probiotics). In addition, the safety of the by-products of bacterial fermentation is questionable. This harmful shift in bacteria and their metabolites then leads to increased glucose intolerance (abnormal blood sugar).

Furthermore, researchers have proved causation, not just correlation. By using antibiotics to wipe out the bacteria, the glucose intolerance after consuming artificial sweeteners doesn’t occur. Even more interesting: taking the stool from glucose intolerant rats fed artificial NNS and putting it into rats with no bacteria also makes them become glucose intolerant! The authors also proved that feeding artificial sweeteners to humans makes them glucose intolerant as well. Although, some people with a unique composition of intestinal bacteria are protected from this negative effect.

Other Health Effects of Artificial Sweeteners
Consuming artificial NNS daily has also been linked to

A 30-100% increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, or leukemia in men consuming diet soda.
A 3x greater risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease, even though in these studies sugar did not have a statistically significant effect.
Double the risk of having an overweight child at 1 years old when consumed during pregnancy.

*In case you’ve been wondering, the associations discussed in this post are not just because people who are unhealthy or overweight drink diet drinks. The studies find matched participants to compare, generally controlling for education, BMI, diet quality, intake of calories, exercise, and smoking.*

A Healthier Alternative: Natural Sweeteners
Looking for a little zero calorie sweetness in your life but not wanting it to come with a side of diabetes or dementia? The most proven, healthy alternative is stevia. 

Stevia is a plant whose leaves are exceedingly sweet. Not only is it safe even at high levels, but also it’s good for you! Some of its properties include antioxidant, antimicrobial, antihypertensive, antidiabetic, anticancer, anti-obesity, anti-hyperglycemic, and anti-hyperlipidemic. Now that is a sweetener I can get behind!

When compared directly to sugar and artificial sweeteners, stevia leads to lower insulin and glucose after a meal. In addition, those who consume it experience appetite reduction and improvement in blood pressure. Accordingly, over the course of a 12-week study, the stevia group consumed fewer calories and lost weight, compared to weight gain in the control group.

Monk fruit is another natural NNS, though it has much less research, especially in humans. For that reason, I don’t recommend it as highly as stevia. However, the research that has been done (not much in humans) suggests it may have antidiabetic, anticarcinogenic, antibacterial, antioxidant, and antiallergic effects. Preliminary evidence also shows that rats fed monk fruit had improvements to insulin resistance, microbial balance in the intestines, and liver health.

Because stevia is much more proven to be safe and healthy, it’s my preferred zero calorie sweetener. Specifically, SweetLeaf Stevia is my favorite way to add a little sweetness to my day (did you notice the rhyme? I just created a great tagline for them, haha). They extract the sweet component from the stevia leaves using only water instead of a number of unhealthy chemicals other companies use. In addition, their entire product line uses only organic stevia, and they have powder or liquid versions that are pure stevia (most products combine it with other sweeteners like sugar alcohols, inulin, or dextrose).

Takeaway: Check labels for any artificial sweeteners and avoid. If you want a calorie-free sweetener, SweetLeaf brand of stevia is the way to go. Enjoy in moderation!

Written by Katie Garrott.

To learn more about Katie’s work as a “health detective” getting to the root causes of fatigue, weight loss resistance, and chronic illness, please visit http://katiegarrott.com/

Leave a comment below on your favorite way to enjoy stevia!

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