Do Artificial Sweeteners Cause More Harm Than Good?
No doubt you've heard about the recent study that links artificial sweeteners with an increased risk of diabetes. Published in the September 17 issue ofNature, the Israeli study showed that eating just an average amount of saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose(say, some Nutrasweet in your coffee and a couple Diet Cokes during the day) seems to alter the composition of bacteria in our intestines. In turn, this can set us up for glucose intolerance—in which too much sugar winds up floating around the bloodstream—and eventually lead to type 2 diabetes. Further, researchers surmise that the artificial sweeteners we now find in everything from soft drinks to sugarless gum and sugar-free candy may actually be contributing to our obesity epidemic.
You may have already put down the diet soda—no loss there; see what diet soda does to you—but before you get on an anti-Splenda soapbox, consider the evidence: "This research is compelling, but it's far from definitive for humans, as it was done mainly in mice," says David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. What's more, the study implicates all three of the artificial sweeteners on the market, which vary greatly in chemical structure, points out Marion Nestle, a professor at the New York University Steinhardt School Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. "Why they all should have similar effects is a puzzle. We need to interpret the study with caution."
Regardless, you probably want to know what this means for your morning fake-sugar-laden vanilla latte. In Nestle's opinion, for most people, it's better to use a small amount of real sugar in there instead. When it comes to preventing type 2 diabetes, skip the artificial sweeteners and simply "eat less sweet stuff and lose a little weight," says Nestle. "Reducing the desire for sweet tastes is difficult, but by no means impossible," she says. That means adding less of every type of sweetener to what you eat, and, as often as possible, skipping heavy desserts in favor of fruit when you need a fix. "After a few weeks, it won't take much sugar to make food taste good," she promises. (She's right, actually—and there are plenty of ways to get smart about sugar.)
Katz points out the other downsides to artificial sweeteners, including the fact that their overly sweet taste can set us up to need more and more to feel satisfied. Plus, he says, there's a lack of evidence that they actually help with weight control at all. His take: "Artificial sweeteners aren't a great idea, whether or not they wreak havoc on our microbiome. I personally don't consume any."
For all of you Sweet 'n Low addicts, know that it's not too late to turn the bad-bacteria ship around: When you remove artificial sweeteners from your diet, you can reverse its effects. In the study, researchers used antibiotics to wipe out bad bacteria in the gut, which resulted in a full reversal of the subjects' glucose intolerance. Short of self-medicating with antibiotics (don't do it!), Katz says that once you've skipped out on fake sugar, adding a probiotic supplement, or having a serving or two of yogurt each day, will likely set a screwy gut straight.
Video: Ask Dr. Nandi: Artificial sweeteners may do more harm than good
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