Are Sugar Substitutes Healthier than Sugar? It’s Debatable.

Artificial sweeteners lower caloric intake and body weight —but at what cost?

Posted Nov 14, 2015

ducu59us/Shutterstock
Source: ducu59us/Shutterstock

Recently, the headlines have been filled with potentially confusing information about diet and nutrition. What foods and beverages actually contribute to weight gain and the health risks associated with the obesity epidemic? When it comes to nutrition, there are always lots of strong opinions and little certainty.

In this post, I will focus specifically on the pros and cons of using sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners based on the latest scientific research.

I am writing this post the morning after the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. As our hearts ache from the loss of life yesterday, I am reminded of the joie de vivre of the French people and their love of delicious food in moderate portions. Vive la France! 

From the perspective of gastronomy and the timeless wisdom of the French, I believe that consuming real sugar in moderation is always going to be the healthiest and best tasting option. Food should be a source of joy, not neurosis. Consuming real sugar in moderation is not bad for our public health. 

That said, the modern American diet is loaded with so much hidden sugar in our prepackaged and prepared foods and beverages—including those that might appear to be “healthy” such as granola, fruit juice, and yogurt—that it’s important for everyone to stay cognizant of how much sugar you are consuming daily.

The FDA Recommends 10 Percent Cap on Sugar Intake

On Nov. 9, 2015, Roni Caryn Rabin reported in a New York Times article, “Placing a Cap on Americans’ Consumption of Added Sugar," that for the first time the FDA is recommending that Americans consume no more than 10 percent of their calories from sugar. Food labeling in the United States is expected to change in the near future to reflect these new FDA guidelines. 

Internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO) is also supporting a 10 percent cap on individual sugar consumption. This excludes the naturally occurring sugar found in fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk. WHO is going even farther than the FDA by encouraging people around the world to aim for a baseline of 5 percent of their caloric intake to come from sugar in order to maintain optimal health.

The latest scientific research gives the sugar substitutes that have been approved by the FDA a clean bill of health when used in limited quantities. Therefore, I would recommend that if you want to drink something sweet, consuming a sugar substitute in beverages is a healthier option than consuming the added daily sugar.

There is one caveat about taking my advice. Deciding what foods and beverages you, or your children, consume is a paramount personal decision. Please do more independent research before you make any changes to your diet that would include the use of sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners.  

Sugar Substitutes in Limited Quantities Are a Healthier Choice for Most of Us

A new study from the University of Bristol released this week represents the first time that food scientists have created a single review that evaluated the real impact of low-energy sweeteners (LES), such as saccharin, aspartame, sucralose and stevia, on energy intake and body weight over the short- and long-term. 

The November 2015 study, “Does Low-Energy Sweetener Consumption Affect Energy Intake and Body Weight? A Systematic Review, Including Meta-Analyses, of the Evidence from Human and Animal Studies,” was published in the International Journal of Obesity.

Because of the laundry list of health risks created by weight gain and obesity, the positive ripple effect of using an LES in moderation makes sugar substitutes in beverages the healthier option for the majority of Americans. The latest research shows that the use of sugar substitutes in place of sugar leads to reduced calorie intake and contributes to the maintenence of a healthy weight in both children and adults.

In a press release, lead author Professor Peter Rogers said: "We believe that we should shift the question from whether LES are 'good' or 'bad,' and rather focus on how they should be best used in practice to help in the achievement of specific public health goals, such as the reduction of intakes of free sugars and energy."

A Calorie Is a Calorie: "Gain Is Gain, However Small" 

A calorie is the measurement of energy it takes to raise 1 gram of water 1 degree in temperature. The key to sustaining a healthy weight is directly linked to matching your own metabolic rate and energy balance based on calories in and calories out. A pound of fat equals roughly 3,500 calories.

Managing your energy balance—which is the sum of your energy intake vs. energy expenditure also known as calories in / calories out—is key to maintaining a healthy body weight. Eating an excessive amount of calories compared to your metabolic daily output will lead to an increase in your body weight. The extra energy anyone consumes in the form of calories is always going to be stored as fat.

Low energy sweeteners are an effective way to reduce your sugar and energy intake, particularly when consuming sweetened beverages. For the Bristol study, the researchers compared the consumption of LES beverages to water and found that LES do not increase appetite, as had been previously reported. 

Their findings suggest that LES beverages reduced weight more than water. One reason for this could be that switching from sugar-sweetened drinks to those with LES may be an easier and more acceptable dietary change for most people than increasing water consumption.

Sugar substitutes basically have zero calories and zero “food energy.” In The Athlete’s Way, I give the example of how using just two teaspoons of sugar a day in your coffee could impact weight gain over time. In my chapter The Nutrition Philosophy I say,

“I feel bad using the wonderful and inspiring Robert Browning quote, “And gain is gain, however small" in a nutrition chapter. It has much more significance than the gain of ounces on your derrière. I use his words here to make the point that we get fat gradually over time. It is the two teaspoons of sugar adding up to thirty-five calories a day that becomes a pound of fat every one hundred days, and three pounds over the course of a year, and thirty pounds in a decade.”

Conclusion: Sugar Substitutes Can Reduce Caloric Intake and Weight Gain

I’ve written extensively about the obesity epidemic and weight loss in previous Psychology Today blog posts and in The Athlete’s Way. Giving nutritional advice is always a minefield and potentially controversial. As I mentioned earlier, please do more research before you make any decisions about changing your dietary habits. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my previous Psychology Today blog posts, 

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