Many people trying to lose weight or watch their overall calorie intake turn to artificial sweeteners in an attempt to satisfy that sweet tooth while avoiding the calories. Which makes some sense, right? If the food you’re eating or the soda you’re drinking has fewer or even no calories, but still tastes sweet, surely that’s a win-win. Unfortunately, as is often the case when something sounds just too good to be true, that’s not quite the full story and perhaps not so true at all.

Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose, to name a few, are compounds that the tongue reads as “sweet”, but the digestive system doesn’t recognize. Therefore, they aren’t really digested, thereby contributing no calories when consumed.  These sweeteners also tend to actually be perceived by the body as much more intensely sweet than natural forms of sugar.

Diet soda, and other “diet” or “low sugar/sugar free” products, use some form of artificial sweeteners.  In theory, this allows the product to maintain its desired sweet taste without the calorie load.  However, a number of studies over the years are painting a very different, and not at all sweet picture.

A recent study by the University of Texas followed a number of people over the course of 10 years. Some of the participants drank diet soda, some didn’t drink any at all. At the end of the 10-year study period, the researchers found that the individuals who drank diet soda had 70% greater increase in waist circumference than those who drank no diet soda.  Individuals who drank 2+ diet sodas a day had a whooping 500%, yep, that’s right, five HUNDRED percent, greater increase.  This is a double whammy, as no only did the diet-soda drinking participants therefore have a significant increase in overall weight, the extra fat tended to be focused around their mid-section.  Abdominal fat is considered the most dangerous and unhealthy sort, and is linked to a much higher risk of diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and cancer. An additional study found that those who drank a mere one diet soda a day had a 36% increased risk of metabolic syndrome (a cluster of factors that drastically increase one’s risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes).. This was in comparison to their non-diet soda drinking counterparts.  What’s more, this increase in belly fat was even more pronounced in those who were already overweight.

But, how can this be? How can a non-calorie beverage and lower calorie foods lead to weight gain?  There are a number of theories and causes being studied. The first theory is that because of the more intense sweetness of artificial sweeteners, our sense of “sweet” is altered.  This leads to a number of negative consequences.  First, our sense to naturally sweet foods like fruit is dulled, making these naturally sweet options less satisfying.  Second,  this heightened sense of sweetness encourages further sweet cravings and confuses the body’s natural ability to judge calorie content.  Further supporting this second point, research has found that even artificial sweeteners may trigger insulin release, a hormone that is typically released in response to a rise in blood sugar.  This is a striking effect – essentially, evidence is showing that just by virtue of tasting sweet, the body responds as if sugar is present, even when it’s not.  This virtually unnecessary spike in insulin does two things, both of which promote weight gain. First, insulin release signals to the body that it should go into storage mode, encouraging fat storage. Second, because the body didn’t actually ingest any real sugar, just something that tasted sweet, blood sugar levels plummet, leading the body to send out signals that it needs more fuel, and consequently encouraging further consumption to re-stabilize the erroneously lowered blood sugar levels.

Additionally, drinking diet soda or eating “diet” foods may have the psychological effect of making you feel like you “saved” calories so you can indulge somewhere else.  All to often people are seen ordering a Big Mac and fries with a diet Coke, as if the calories saved on the drink will somehow negate that excessive, nutritionally-poor food choices. Furthermore, artificial sweeteners have been shown to shift the type of gut flora in the body. This bacteria in the intestines is required for proper digestion, production of a number of micronutrients and vitamins, immunity, and even neurotransmitter production.  A shift in the gut flora can wreak havoc on the entire body. And if all of this isn’t sufficient to convince you diet soda and artificial sweeteners aren’t a healthy choice, the caramel coloring in many sodas has been linked to increasing cancer risk.

To sum, as one researcher put it in a Forbes article on diet soda, “being calorie free doesn’t mean being consequence free”.  As I’ve written before and as we at CoreLife coach to all our clients, there are no short-cuts to weight loss. Real food leads to real health.

Aubrey Phelps MS RDN