What effect do artificial sweeteners have on our weight? Since the mid-’70s, artificial sweetener consumption in the U.S. has doubled. Since the 1990s, new products have exploded, leading to more than 6,000 products being introduced from just 1999 to 2004! 

Guess what else happened? We have gone from an obesity rate of 8% in the mid-1970s to over 42% by 2017. That is not a typo: forty-two percent. 

Who or what is to blame? Unfortunately, it’s not likely we can blame our ‘diet’ sugars, but they may have some effect. Artificial sweeteners include sucralose, aspartame, advantame, saccharin, neotame, and acesulfime potassium. These chemicals are designed to add sweetness without adding calories. They are hundreds of times more sweet than table sugar (sucrose), so very small amounts are needed. Do they help with weight loss or weight maintenance? The answer is … maybe?

Weight is basically a component of energy balance. Positive energy balance means more calories than needed, resulting in weight gain. Negative energy balance results in weight loss. So, if I replace a sugared 150-calorie drink with a zero-calorie drink, I can lose a pound for every case that I no longer drink, right? In theory, as long as I control my other dietary intakes and make sure that that 150 calorie savings is truly saved.

As with most things, it is a little more complicated than that. Our minds and metabolism get in the way. When we ingest artificial sweeteners our body realizes there is no follow-through on caloric intake and it appears this increases our motivation to eat MORE to compensate. Food is right up there with sex, drugs and rock and roll when it comes to brain activity, reward and addiction. Abstaining from certain foods (sugar is one) leads to binging behaviors. There are two components to this system: sensory, which is the tastes and smells associated with eating so far so good; but the next component is postingestive and this is where we lose the benefits of calorie-free. Functional MRI studies have shown that artificial sweeteners do not affect the brain the same way as glucose. Most of us likely end up eating all of our saved calories from going sugar-free. 

So, diet or regular? The real question should be, “Can I control my caloric intake?” If your weight maintenance plan is based on a diet soda, you probably should reconsider. That, or really amp up your calorie burn!

Have a great week, and be healthier today than you were yesterday!
— Have a topic for Dr. Woltz to consider? Please email [email protected].

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Dr. John Woltz is a preventative health physician with Baptist Health Primary Care in Marathon.