01 Nov Are Diet Drinks Making You Sick and Overweight?
From diet drinks to probiotic yogurt, artificial sweeteners have become commonplace in the food and beverage industry.
However, if you’ve switched to food and drinks that contain artificial sweeteners in an attempt to cut down your sugar consumption or to lose weight, then you might want to reevaluate your choices. Recent discoveries show that artificial sweeteners can alter your gut microbes and your health as a result.
Although the FDA recognizes them as safe(1), artificial sweeteners remain a controversial public health issue. There’s too much research out there to cover in a blog article comprehensively, though the following will cover the basics: Do artificial sweeteners harm your good bacteria? Do they contribute to weight gain? And ultimately, should you be eating them?
Do Artificial Sweeteners Harm Your Gastric Biome?
In the United States, six artificial sweeteners — also known as high-intensity sweeteners — have been approved for use: aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), neotame, and advantame. Synthetic sugar substitutes add sweetness to foods and drinks without any extra calories, making them an appealing choice for people aspiring to lose weight.
Everyday foods and products contain synthetic sugar substitutes, including chewing gum, candy, soda, toothpaste, etc. Though, in recent years artificial sweeteners have generated debate. People are starting to question if artificial sugars are as healthy and safe as scientists initially believed.
One of their possible problems is that they may disrupt the balance of gut microbiome(2), the trillions of bacteria that occupy your gastrointestinal tract. A comprehensive research study has now shown — almost unequivocally — that synthetic sweeteners can, in fact, have an impact on health via altering gut microbes.
Most artificial sugars pass through the gastrointestinal tract without digestion; therefore, they come in contact with microbes in the colon, or large intestine. As a result, groups of bacteria are altered in abundance, which is an indication of a considerable imbalance of bacteria. When your gut contains fewer than normal healthy bacteria, it is called dysbiosis.
Which bacteria was changed in this study? In the saccharin group, the Lactobacillus reuteri (often found in probiotic foods) and Akkermansia muciniphila (two microbes generally considered to be beneficial) decreased. Bacteroides genus and several members of the Clostridiales order increased, while other Clostridiales decreased.
As we see from the results of this study, this change in the gut biome may have implications for the overall health of the body.
Your Gut Biome May Affect Your Health and Lead to Obesity
Your gut bacteria play a significant part in several of your body's processes. The beneficial gut bacteria are known to protect your gut, produce essential nutrients, vitamins, and hormones, help regulate your immune system, and protect against infection.
Dysbiosis has been linked to numerous gut issues, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and celiac disease. Emerging research also suggests that your gut bacteria may be linked to a wide range of other health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity to name a few.
Recent studies suggest that dysbiosis may play a role in how much you weigh. Scientists studying gut bacteria have discovered that normal-weight people tend to have different patterns of bacteria in their guts than overweight people.
Studies comparing the gut bacteria of normal-weight and overweight identical twins have found the same phenomenon. This demonstrates that these differences in the gut biome are not genetic.
Furthermore, the scientists transferred the gut bacteria from identical human twins to mice. Interestingly, the mice that received bacteria from the overweight twins gained weight(3), despite all the mice being fed the same diet.
Artificial Sweetener Association with Impaired Glucose Intolerance
Researchers have now discovered robust effects on the gut microbiome and glucose intolerance(4), or a pre-diabetic state that is correlated with insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease.
By applying a food frequency questionnaire and several measures of metabolic disease, researchers have found a significant correlation between consuming artificial sugars and metabolic disease. The metabolic syndrome parameters noted include waist-to-hip ratio, weight, fasting blood glucose, hemoglobin A1c, glucose tolerance test, and ALT.
You may be thinking, yes, but people with weight issues and metabolic syndrome are most likely to use artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to help them lose weight, so of course, there will be an association with people being overweight and people using artificial sweeteners. Luckily, the scientists took this into account in the study, and the effect remained the same after correcting for the body mass index (BMI).
With the overwhelming evidence that continues to mount on the effects of artificial sweeteners and their role in disrupting the gastric biome, I recommend all of my patients to decrease and eventually stop their use.
While we can’t always assume causation from simple associations, multiple studies call for a serious need to reassess the ubiquitous and ever-increasing consumption of artificial sweeteners. The following evidence is concerning:
- The detrimental metabolic effects are mediated by changes in the composition and function of the gut microbiota.
- Artificial sweetener consumption in both the animal model and humans increases the risk of developing glucose intolerance and metabolic disease.
So, if you are pre-diabetic, have diabetes, are overweight, or have chronic health conditions, don’t assume that drinking a diet beverage will be harmless. It is actually part of the problem and instead of helping you get thinner and healthier, it is most likely doing just the opposite.