Every few years, a new health scare comes along that makes us change our diets, re-join the gym and start reading food packets in the supermarket. The most recent and sustained campaign has related to sugar intake; namely, why we should all aim to reduce it.
A high sugar intake is bad for us for a number of reasons – it can lead to tooth decay, weight gain (which in turn increases your risk of serious conditions such as diabetes) and potentially even depression. In an effort to avoid sugar, many people turn to artificial sweeteners, but if the latest studies are anything to go by, artificial sweeteners may do just as much harm as the real thing.
According to a recent study carried out by the University of Manitoba in Canada, the consumption of sugar alternatives is linked to weight gain and an increased risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. The research project, led by Dr Meghan Azad, reviewed data from 37 separate studies, which looked at more than 400,000 people over a 10-year period.
Part of what is concerning about this news is that most artificially sweetened products are not clinically trialled. It’s not known, in other words, exactly what kind of effect sugar alternatives are having upon our bodies.
How worried should we be about artificial sweeteners?
The main issue with the reporting that surrounds this kind of study is that it is not clear what the correlation is between artificial sweeteners and weight gain. One explanation for the data may be that a large proportion of people who opt to use sugar substitutes already have difficulty sticking to a healthy weight, and may be predisposed to diseases such as diabetes.
Another convincing theory that scientists have suggested is that artificial sweeteners can actually stimulate your appetite, causing you to eat and drink more than you would if you had consumed a product containing sugar. As detailed here, artificial sweeteners do not seem to activate the same “reward” pathways in the brain as natural sweeteners. When we consume something sweet that is “decoupled from caloric content” our reward pathways aren’t activated to the same extent, which leads us to “seek food to satisfy the inherent craving for sweetness”.
After drinking a Diet Coke, in other words, we may be more tempted to reach for a biscuit or a packet of crisps than if we had drunk a full-sugar Coke.
Considered in this light, artificial sweeteners themselves may not be problematic, but their effect upon our brains may lead us to develop particular eating behaviours, which counteract the benefits of consuming low-sugar or zero-sugar products.
For people using artificial sweeteners in their diets, there is not necessarily cause for alarm just yet, but as Dr Azad has said, “caution is warranted until the long-term health effects of artificial sweeteners are fully characterised.”
This may be especially important to bear in mind if you are currently trying to lose weight, and you find that you are relying upon low-calorie or zero-calorie products that contain artificial sweeteners. Though sweeteners are recommended by the NHS as a substitute for natural sugars, it’s important to bear in mind that weight loss should incorporate a balanced, healthy diet and exercise. Switching to low or no-sugar versions of your favourite foods alone is unlikely to be effective.
If you’re keen to lose some weight and get healthier, the best thing to do is adopt a realistic and manageable diet and exercise plan. One place to start is with your sugar intake; slowly reduce the amount you consume in your diet and start eating more fruit to satisfy sweet cravings.
Eat plenty of vegetables and fibre-rich starchy foods such as jacket potatoes and brown rice, and cut back on red and processed meats. Source healthy protein from pulses, beans, fish, eggs and lean meats like chicken and turkey, and switch to lower fat dairy products.
Exercise is also key – adults should try to do 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week and strength exercises two days a week.
Lastly, if you’re really struggling to lose weight, remember that certain prescription medicines can help. There is an online Weight Loss clinic option which may be suitable for you..