Everyone can relate to the enjoyment felt when eating something sweet. In fact, we are primed to prefer sweet flavors from birth. Our taste preferences were developed during a time of food scarcity. As our ancestors fought to survive as hunters and gathers, humans adapted to prefer high-calorie foods, such as sweet-tasting foods, as a means of survival.
While our brains haven’t evolved all that much since that time, our food supply has changed dramatically. For a vast majority of us now, food is readily available. Of the food available in grocery stores, 75% of products contain some type of added sweetener. Meanwhile, obesity rates have dramatically increased as well.
In a search for a way to outsmart our biology, the artificial sweetener industry arose. We want to “have our cake & eat it too” by still being able to enjoy the taste of sweet foods without the negative consequences of excessive sugar intake.
Sugar substitutes were invented over 100 years ago, yet their safety and effectiveness remain widely debated. Let’s walk through the available research about artificial sweeteners to determine their impact on body composition and weight loss goals.
What Are Artificial Sweeteners?
Have you ever wondered how a sugar-free, calorie-free beverage or candy can still taste sweet? Chances are, it was made with a sugar substitute.
Artificial sweeteners differ from regular sugar in a few key ways. Also known as “non-nutritive sweeteners”, artificial sweeteners are not a source of calories or other nutrients. While they are similar to sugar in that they have a sweet flavor, sugar substitutes often taste thousands of times sweeter than table sugar.
Let’s compare that to the nutrient profile for table sugar. A teaspoon of sugar provides 16 calories and no other nutrients, and so it is often referred to as a source of “empty calories”. As a result, the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar intake to no more than 6 teaspoons per day for women and 9 teaspoons per day for men. Added sugars include any type of sugar that doesn’t occur naturally (such as the fructose in fruit or the lactose in milk).
There are 8 types of artificial sweeteners approved for use in the United States. This includes acesulfame potassium, Advantame, Aspartame, Luo han guo (Monk fruit extract), Neotame, Saccharin, Stevia, and Sucralose. The Food and Drug Administration has deemed all of these sugar substitutes as safe for consumption.
A third “hybrid” class of sugar substitutes includes sugar alcohols. While sugar alcohols can occur naturally in some foods, they are also often extracted and added to food products labeled “sugar-free”. Sugar alcohols are a source of both calories and carbohydrates; however, they aren’t digested well and are a lower source of calories when compared to regular sugar. Examples of commonly used sugar alcohols include xylitol, mannitol, and sorbitol.
Determining what sweeteners are being used in various food products can be confusing for consumers. If a product is made with artificial sweeteners, you can find it listed under ingredients. Figuring out what ingredients are in your favorite foods is the first step. Next, let’s look at how consuming sugar substitutes can play a role in your body composition goals.
Can Artificial Sweetener Affect Your Weight Loss?
It has long been assumed that given the absence of any caloric content, foods made with artificial sweeteners would help promote a caloric deficit and lead to weight loss. However, ongoing research has failed to consistently support this claim. Many large, long-term research studies have shown that people who consumed artificial sweeteners were found to have a higher waist circumference and increased incidence of obesity.
The exact reason why the regular use of artificial sweeteners is associated with higher obesity risk is still being investigated. It could be partially due to the fact that artificial sweeteners are so much sweeter than regular sugar.
A study completed in the Journal of Physiology and Behavior demonstrated that diet soda drinkers process sweet tastes differently on a neurological level. They had an increased sense of reward following the consumption of sweet tastes when compared to those who did not consume diet drinks, which may cause them to seek out more sweet foods. Researchers speculated that consuming artificial sweeteners weakened the brain’s association between sweet tastes and calories.
By being regularly exposed to intensely sweet flavors, people may become accustomed to the sweetness and need more of it to get the same amount of satisfaction from eating. Thankfully, it appears that this process can also be reversed. One small study found that when people cut out sugar and sugar substitutes for as little as two weeks, their preferences for sweet foods were downgraded, indicating that our taste preferences are easily malleable.
Another theory behind why artificial sweeteners may lead to weight gain is that they could be negatively affecting gut microbiota. Just because the sweeteners don’t contain calories, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are inert when ingested.
We know that a healthy gut microbiome can play an important role in achieving body composition goals. Some small-scale studies have demonstrated that consuming high amounts of artificial sweeteners can change a person’s gut microbiome in a way that may put them at higher risk for conditions like obesity and even type 2 diabetes.
When it comes to losing weight, both regular sugar and artificial sweeteners can hinder progress in the long run. A better strategy would be to cut down on the regular consumption of highly sweetened foods and allow your taste buds to adapt to naturally sweet foods, such as dairy and fruit.
Do artificial sweeteners affect those who don’t necessarily need to lose weight but would like to improve muscle mass?
Can Artificial Sweeteners Affect Your Muscle Gain?
Artificial sweeteners likely aren’t doing any favors for those who are striving to build lean body mass, either.
We need carbs after a workout for replenishing depleted glycogen stores. However, many commercially prepared protein supplements are made with artificial sweeteners and don’t provide a source of carbohydrates. If you consume only protein made with sugar substitutes after a workout, you are missing out on an essential component of post-workout recovery.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that supplementing with carbohydrates before and during strength training can boost performance when compared to participants who were given the artificial sweeteners saccharin and aspartame.
To properly refuel after your workouts, ditch the artificially sweetened protein powders and aim for a snack packed with both protein and high-quality carbohydrates instead. Examples include Greek yogurt, fruit with nuts or nut butter, or hummus with whole-grain crackers.
Various types of sugar.Although consuming artificial sweeteners contributes neither calories nor nutrients to your diet, they are not necessarily biologically inert. In fact, sugar substitutes appear to be counterproductive when it comes to both losing weight and gaining muscle.
Some studies show that regular consumption of artificial sweeteners is actually associated with a higher risk of being overweight. Although the Food and Drug Administration has deemed 8 types of sugar substitutes safe for consumption, they are not responsible for evaluating whether the use of these ingredients is beneficial for health. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans warn against the long-term use of artificial sweeteners as a method for weight loss.
The weight gain associated with sugar substitutes could be due to the regular use of these products leading to increased sugar cravings since they are hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than regular sugar. They may also negatively affect the gut microbiome in a way that could make people more prone to obesity and type 2 diabetes.
For those who are striving to increase lean body mass, artificial sweeteners are not ideal because they do not provide a source of carbohydrates, which is necessary for optimal performance and replenishing depleted glycogen stores.
In short, the truth about artificial sweeteners is that they are likely hindering your body composition goals. A better approach would be to gradually reduce your consumption of highly sweet foods. Thankfully, our taste preferences can adapt to a diet lower in both sugar and sugar substitutes.