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New research links artificial sweeteners to obesity and diabetes

By Leah Groth ; Updated May 02, 2018

New research has linked artificial sweeteners — most commonly found in diet soft drinks — to obesity and diabetes.

According to a new study, drinking diet sodas instead of the sugary kind or picking Splenda over white sugar probably isn’t going to help you lose weight. In fact, it might be just as bad for your health as the genuine article. Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University found sweeteners like aspartame and acesulfame potassium change how the body processes fat and uses energy and may not prevent health issues like obesity and diabetes.

“Despite the addition of these noncaloric artificial sweeteners to our everyday diets, there has still been a drastic rise in obesity and diabetes,” explained lead researcher Brian Hoffmann, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of biomedical engineering at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University, in a press release. “In our studies, both sugar and artificial sweeteners seem to exhibit negative effects linked to obesity and diabetes, albeit through very different mechanisms from each other.”

Researchers fed live rats diets high in sugar or artificial sweeteners. Three weeks in, they took blood samples from the rodents and found drastic differences in the concentrations of biochemicals, fats and amino acids in blood samples of the mice that consumed artificial sweeteners. They also discovered that acesulfame potassium (one of the common types of artificial sweeteners) appeared to accumulate in the blood, with greater concentrations having a more negative impact on the cells that line blood vessels.

This suggests that artificial sweeteners alter how the body processes fat and gets its energy, but in an entirely different way than natural sugars. It became clear to researchers that artificial sweeteners could contribute to diabetes and obesity in their own unique way that differed from how sugar does.

While this is all pretty scary news, remember that there is a difference between a rat consuming copious amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners nonstop for three weeks and a human who might have the occasional Diet Coke or Splenda packet in her coffee.

“We observed that in moderation your body has the machinery to handle sugar,” Hoffmann continued. “It is when the system is overloaded over a long period of time that this machinery breaks down. We also observed that replacing these sugars with noncaloric artificial sweeteners leads to negative changes in fat and energy metabolism.” So, yeah, moderation is key.

But which is better, you might be wondering: the real McCoy or an imitation? Researchers from this study don’t have an answer yet, but their findings serve as a reminder that artificial sweeteners aren’t necessarily harmless, nor are they better for you than sugar.

“It is not as simple as ‘stop using artificial sweeteners’ being the key to solving overall health outcomes related to diabetes and obesity,” Hoffmann added. “If you chronically consume these foreign substances (as with sugar) the risk of negative health outcomes increases. As with other dietary components, I like to tell people moderation is the key if one finds it hard to completely cut something out of their diet.”

Keep in mind that the recommended daily allowance of sugar for men is 36 grams and women 24 grams. Just one 12-ounce Coke contains a whopping 39 grams of sugar — more than a man or women should consume in a single day. While the FDA’s recommended guidelines for artificial sweeteners aren’t as specific (because they are based on the exact type of sweetener as well as your body weight), this study is a great reminder that they are far from healthful.

If you want to avoid both sugary and artificially sweetened drinks, there are plenty of alternatives aside from water, including green tea, milk, coffee and flavored waters.

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