Are artificial sweeteners really linked to weight gain? What the latest study says.

Are artificial sweeteners really linked to weight gain? What the latest study says.

Artificial sweeteners have been the subject of a lot of speculation over the years. If I had a dollar for every client who has said to me that sweeteners cause cancer, I’d be wearing some really nice shoes right now and sitting in a seaside mansion. So what’s the deal with sweeteners, really? Are they a good way to cut calories, or are they toxic poison that’s making us fatter and sicker?

Our consumption of artificial sweeteners has increased exponentially in the past few decades, so if they’re that bad for us, we’re all in trouble…especially diabetics who have been eating them for years and years! Oh no!

Pffft. Hold on a second.

This morning, I came across media for a new study out of Australia that says – or appears to say, that sweeteners cause weight gain and diabetes. The headline “Artificial Sweeteners Linked to Weight Gain and Type 2 Diabetes, Study Says” popped up on my Apple News, and knowing how the media likes to blow this sort of thing up into a huge deal when really, there is none – I investigated further. And also knowing that you’ll be interested in my take on sweeteners, I decided to break it all down for you.

What did the study say?

Let’s look beyond the ridiculous clickbait headline.

This study, done by Dr. Peter Clifton out of the University of South Australia, was a review of evidence from the past decade, meaning the researchers didn’t really do their own research. Rather, they compiled evidence from other studies and tried to draw conclusions from it.

Clifton says that his team found ‘a link’ between obesity and diabetes and sweeteners. That “people who consumed artificial sweeteners at least twice a day were more likely to gain weight than those who never did.”

That sounds ominous enough. But then, there it is! The disclaimer! 

“However, Clifton and colleagues concluded that more long-term studies on sweeteners are needed to “draw a firm conclusion” about their role in blood sugar control.”

Meaning, they found a ‘link’ that they’re really not sure about. Is it or isn’t it? And a even better question would be, shouldn’t they work that out before the media announces it like it’s fact?

The inconclusive link is a popular situation with nutrition research, for reasons I’ve discussed so many times before. Mostly because when you’re dealing with population-based studies, it’s almost impossible to tease out the effect of the sweeteners versus other things the subjects may be eating or doing. 

The article goes on to say, “Clifton said the problem might be partly behavioral…people who use sweeteners often still eat sugar, and may feel permission to overindulge.”

Okay, Dr. Clifton, so what you’re saying is that it might be the rest of a person’s diet, and not the sweeteners, that are causing them to gain weight? That’s it’s probably a behavioural thing, not anything chemically to do with sweeteners.

Interesting. Thanks for coming out!

As far as diabetes goes, we already know that weight gain is a risk factor for the disease. And if people who consume sweeteners are more likely to gain weight because of overeating, this could theoretically be causing the uptick in diabetes, too.

Clifton points out that “”The associations with type 2 diabetes are really unexplained mechanistically,” so honestly, should we even be speculating about a ‘link’ between sweeteners and diabetes?

No, no we shouldn’t. 

Someone tell that to the media.

As far as other studies on sweeteners go, most of them have been done on animals who receive a dose far higher than any human would ever eat. Even my cousin who drinks 2 litres of Diet Coke a day. 

The gut bacteria ‘link’ with sweeteners has proven inconclusive, and any association with cancer, weight gain, diabetes has not been proven. There is some evidence linking migraines to Sucralose (commonly sold as Splenda). 

I do find that because some artificial sweeteners are so sweet, they increase sweet tolerance, making us want sweeter and sweeter food. But this is just anecdotal. 

Artificial sweeteners are safe, but as I always say, choose whichever sweetener you want, including sugar – just eat as little as possible. 

So yet again, you see how brutal and unethical the media can be with their reporting on nutrition studies. The problem is that most people won’t even read beyond the headline, or will fail to register the disclaimers and speculation that studies like these are built on. The result is that there’s a fear of food that confuses us and makes eating into something that’s scary.