Artificial sweeteners and weight gain – is it best to switch to ‘diet’?
The rise in obesity over the past few decades has ultimately been driven by an imbalance between the number of calories we consume and the number of calories we use. It is likely that obesity is multi-faceted, and that this calorie imbalance equation can’t be blamed on one thing and one thing only. Along with a decrease in physical activity and rise in sedentary work and personal lifestyles, sugar sweetened beverages are perhaps one contributing factor to the obesity epidemic. The calories contained within sugar sweetened beverages appear not to have ‘replaced’ calories one is already typically consuming; instead, the sugar sweetened beverage is consumed ‘in addition to’ one’s normal caloric intake. Thus, in the long-term, if energy expenditure does not increase to account to the additional intake, weight gain is likely.
So what about ‘diet’ beverages; do they lead to weight gain as well? Diet drinks contain low or zero calorie artificial sweeteners, and it’s been suggested that artificial sweeteners and weight gain are linked. There’s a large variety of artificial sweetener on the market, and it’s suggested that they too promote weight gain via appetite stimulation, such that even though one does not consume calories in the actual ‘diet’ product, the sensations felt after it’s consumption cause an increased intake in other ‘food stuff’. This theory, however, does not appear to have been supported in the literature.
On the contrary, diet beverages – and other products containing low calorie sweeteners – would appear beneficial in promoting weight loss or preventing weight gain. A recent meta analysis suggests that substituting low calorie sweeteners for sugar (sweetened beverages) modestly reduces body weight, BMI, fat mass, and waist circumference. In effect, making the switch from ‘full fat’ (and I use the term while cringing) to ‘diet’ would appear modestly effective in assisting weight loss or preventing weight gain.
The mean reduction in weight from employing this tactic is modest. Yet as a small dietary food swap, switching sugar-containing drinks to diet varieties could be helpful as part of a weight loss strategy. It has been suggested, for example that adherence to a diet plan involving dietary change is somewhat better when someone is allowed diet drinks, which helps maintain the palatability of food and beverage with fewer calories than sugar. Thus, including diet drinks in one’s plan helps a person stick to their diet better, as they still get the satisfaction of something sweet.
The result of this meta analysis indicate that substituting Low Calorie Sweeteners in place of calorically dense alternatives results in a modest reduction of body weight, BMI, fat mass, and waist circumference. If there is a link between artificial sweeteners and weight gain, it appears as though it prevents it, not encourages it.
(One of the best sugar substitute may be Stevia, the leaf seen in the picture)
Take home: if your regularly consume sugar sweetened beverages, and also care about reducing your waistline, then consider switching some/all of your beverages to diet varieties. It is likely that this change may help to facilitate some weight loss or prevent weight gain. In addition, this is most likely a manageable step that one can continue to adhere to in the long-term, in itself an important aspect of any weight loss intervention strategy.