In theory and in some studies, yes, sugar substitutes help people lose weight. In practice, it depends.
Companies advertise their artificially sweetened foods as being almost magical weight-loss potions. The fact is, though, that losing weight is difficult, and people need to make a concerted effort to eat fewer calories and exercise more. Artificial sweeteners and other sugar substitutes can make the struggle a little more pleasant. The trick is not making up the skipped calories in other foods.
A number of clinical studies have compared the effect on body weight of eating sugary foods and beverages to the effect of comparable artificially sweetened products. A recent review of the evidence on diet beverages concluded that the risk of obesity may be lower when artificially sweetened beverages replace sugar-sweetened beverages, but that additional research is needed to be sure.
Moreover, the federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association, and the American Diabetes Association say that sugar substitutes may help with weight management, but that the evidence is limited.
Some people claim that artificial sweeteners actually cause people to gain weight. Those claims are sometimes based on studies that found that people consuming diet soda were more likely to be overweight or obese than others not consuming diet soda. But that does not prove that diet soda or artificial sweeteners cause obesity or weight gain. People who are overweight or obese may simply be consuming diet soda in an attempt to lose weight.
A recent well-designed randomized controlled trial—the strongest kind of evidence— found that diet soda doesn’t cause weight gain. Researchers assigned 641 children to drink either a cup a day of soda sweetened with sugar or with non-caloric sweeteners for 18 months. The drinks tasted and looked the same, and the researchers measured sucralose in the urine to make sure the children drank the sugar-free beverages. Those who got the regular soda gained more weight (and fat).
Also, a recent industry-sponsored meta-analysis (in which the results from numerous small studies are combined into one analysis) of randomized controlled trials—found that substituting low-calorie foods and beverages for their regular-calorie versions results in a modest weight loss and may be a useful dietary tool to improve compliance with weight-loss or weight-maintenance plans.
Another argument that artificial sweeteners hurt more than help dieters is based on the finding that sugar substitutes can interact with sweet-taste receptors not only in the mouth, but also in the gastrointestinal tract and pancreas. Test-tube studies show that when sugar substitutes interact with those receptors, they cause gut hormones to be secreted and other metabolic changes that could affect the regulation of body weight. However, most studies in humans have not detected such effects. Scientists are still working to understand the significance of those curiously situated sweet-taste receptors and their interaction with sugar substitutes.
Finally, others say that artificial sweeteners derail weight-loss efforts by changing the ecology of the bacteria and other microbes—roughly 100 trillion!—in our digestive tracts. Scientists are learning how important the “microbiome” in our bodies is to our health. A widely publicized 2014 study concluded that artificial sweeteners may have contributed to the obesity and diabetes epidemics by altering bacteria in the gut. The results suggested that the artificial sweetener saccharin might trigger metabolic problems in some people by changing the microbiome. However, the study focused on saccharin and can’t be generalized to all artificial sweeteners. And although the FDA considers the amount of saccharin used in the study to be safe, it is far higher than what most people actually consume. Furthermore, one part of the study looked at only seven healthy adults consuming saccharin for one week. That’s too small and too short of a study to draw firm conclusions about effects over the long-term. The results, while provocative, don’t negate well-designed studies that find that people are more likely to gain weight on sugar-sweetened beverages and more likely to lose weight on calorie-free beverages. But they do deserve further study.
• Pereira, M. Diet beverages and the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease: a review of the evidence. Nutrition Reviews 2013; 71(7): 433-440, doi:10.1111/nure.12038.
• U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2010. http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010. pdf. Accessed May 28, 2014.
• Gardner C, Wylie-Rosett J, Gidding SS, et al. American Heart Association Nutrition Committee of the Council on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young; American Diabetes Association. Nonnutritive sweeteners: current use and health perspectives: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care 2012;35:1798-1808. doi:10.2337/dc12-9002.
• de Rutyer JC, Olthof MR, Seidell JC, et al. A trial of sugar-free or sugar-sweetened beverages and body weight in children. N Engl J Med 2012;367:1397-406. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1203034.
• Miller PE, Perez V. Low-calorie sweeteners and body weight and composition: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies. Am J Clin Nutr 2014; 100 (3):765-777. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.082826.
• Brown RJ, Rother KI. Non-nutritive sweeteners and their role in the gastrointestinal tract. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2012; 97(8): 2597–2605. doi: 10.1210/jc.2012-1475.
• Suez J, Korem T, Zeevi D, et al. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature 2014 Sep 17. doi: 10.1038/nature13793.
Other relevant links:
- Stay away from these three common sugar substitutes. See: Sugar in Food: Sugar Substitutes that You Should Avoid
- Sugar alcohols are safe, as long as you don’t eat too much. See: Sugar in Food: Sugar Substitutes that are Safe in Moderation
- Cut back on sugar and try one of these safe sugar substitutes. See: Sugar in Food: Sugar Substitutes that are Safe