Do Sweeteners Help You Lose Weight or Gain It?

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When artificial sweeteners first hit the market, diabetics were thrilled with the possibility that they could have a cup of sweetened coffee, sodas, and even sweet desserts. People who were trying to lose weight jumped on board with the thought of having a "sugary" treat without all the calories that came with it.  Dentists were happy with idea that the cavities brought on by real sugar could be reduced.  It looked like a win-win-win situation. But is it?


You can now find artificially sweetened sodas everywhere: cocoa mixes, yogurts, and cookies.  Packets of "fake sugar" are offered everywhere we buy coffee.  You would think that we'd have a lower incidence of obesity with the sucralose and aspartame we consume, but in fact, just the opposite has occurred:  the obesity rate has surged. Most assuredly, this is not all the fault of artificial sweeteners, but could play a role?

News has now hit that some research is suggesting that artificial sweetener may actually encourage you to gain weight. What?  Researchers at Purdue are theorizing that consuming non-nutritive sweeteners (post 1/9/11) may screw up the body's ability to keep track of how many calories are eaten based on the food's sweetness.  We chug a large Coke.  The body realizes that all those calories are coming in because it is really sweet.  You drink a large Diet Coke.  The calories that were supposed to be provided with that level of sweetness aren't coming in.  It's almost like your body demands to receive those promised calories, so it kicks in a craving for sugary stuff which then leads to over eating or more sedentary activity levels. Keep in mind that this research was done testing saccharin on rats and it is certainly not definitive: many more studies need to be done including examining human subjects.

If you are trying to lose or manage your weight, should you give up artificial sweeteners?  Should you go back to sugar and honey or start buying the expensive agave nectar? Listen to your body. Really pay attention to what happens after you consume sucralose or aspartame.  If a craving really kicks in for all things sweet, you may want to avoid the artificial sweeteners for now. Don't just switch everything back to sugar; keep in mind that all nutritive sweeteners do have calories.  If you swap a diet Dr. Pepper for a regular one every day, you'll be getting an additional 150 calories.  In one year that could add up to an extra 15 pounds of fat if you don't cut down on some other calories.  

Some people find that they don't seem to develop a sugar-craving after artificial sweeteners. In fact, I've heard many people say having a diet drink or sweet keeps them from diving head first into a Snickers bar.  If that's the case, using them in moderation is just fine.  

The key is to be mindful of your use of all sweeteners.  Nutritive sweeteners, including the newly popular agave nectar, all have calories that provide no other nutritional value: empty calories. Non-nutritive sweeteners have no calories, but may increase our craving for sugar. You could try reaching for a piece of fruit for something sweet. The sugar in fruit comes along with many other wonderful vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that your body really needs.

For your health, go easy on all types of sweeteners!