The allure of artificial sweeteners hooks an estimated 180 million Americans. With zero calories and 200 times the sweetness of sugar, artificial sweeteners like aspartame seem to good to be true—and they are.
Artificial sweeteners have been called out as possible contributors to cancer, depression, headaches, oxidative damage to the brain, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. Far from helping you lose weight, artificial sweeteners appear to promote weight gain. According to a report in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine: “Several large scale prospective cohort studies found positive correlation between artificial sweetener use and weight gain.”
Studies suggest that aspartame and other artificial sweeteners may make you hungrier, causing cravings for more food and extra calorie consumption. A new study published online in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism reveals another explanation for the link between aspartame intake and weight gain.
Zero Calories, Extra Pounds
Aspartame breaks down into the amino acid phenylalanine in the body. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) discovered that phenylalanine suppresses the activity of an enzyme in our guts called alkaline phosphatase (IAP). Previous research shows that IAP helps keep metabolic syndrome at bay, and can also decrease the symptoms of metabolic syndrome in those suffering from the condition. IAP has also been shown to help prevent diabetes and obesity. According to the latest research, blocking IAP from its protective capabilities may be encouraging weight gain and an increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
MGH researchers separated mice into 4 groups. For 18 weeks, two groups were fed a normal diet, with one group drinking water with aspartame and the other group drinking plain water. The other two groups were fed a high-fat diet, along with either aspartame-laced or plain water. The amount of aspartame in the water was equivalent to the amount of aspartame in 2-3 ½ cans of soda.
The link between aspartame consumption and weight gain held strong. The mice on the high-fat, aspartame-drinking-water diet gained more weight than the mice on the high-fat, plain-drinking-water diet. The mice on the high-fat diet with aspartame also developed symptoms of metabolic disorder. Even the mice on the normal diets had higher blood sugar levels and higher levels of the inflammatory protein TNF-alpha, a marker for disease-promoting systemic inflammation, when aspartame was added to the water.
How to Cut Out the Artificial Sweeteners
While zero calories is tempting in theory, it’s disastrous in consequence, and can do more harm than good to your weight loss efforts and overall health goals. Here are some tips to help you steer clear of artificial sugar substitutes.
When you’re craving a soda, infuse some sparkling water with a natural flavoring agent, such as lime, strawberry, or raspberry, to add flavor and make a healthy “soda-like” drink. You can also get your soda fix with a healthful fermented beverage such as kombucha, which is low in calories and carbonated like soda, but naturally sweetened in a variety of flavors.
Here’s another idea: instead of pouring in a packet (or two) of aspartame to your daily cup of coffee, sweeten with a natural low-calorie sweetener, like xylitol, monk fruit, or stevia.