Do Artificial Sweeteners Raise Odds for Obesity?

Artificial sweeteners may be less helpful than many believe in helping people lose weight and avoid health problems associated with extra pounds, a new evidence review suggests.

Aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and other artificial sweeteners did not lead to any significant weight loss in more than 1,000 participants in seven clinical trials, said lead researcher Meghan Azad. Clinical trials are considered the “gold standard” of medical research, added Azad, an assistant professor of pediatrics with the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada.

At the same time, the combined data from 30 observational studies involving more than 400,000 participants showed that artificial sweeteners are associated with obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and heart health problems. Observational studies cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship, however.

These results are “kind of the opposite of what these products are intended for,” Azad said. “It should make people think and question whether they really need to be eating these artificial sweeteners.”

However, it’s possible this evidence review is blaming artificial sweeteners for health problems attributable to an otherwise poor diet or other unhealthy lifestyle choices, countered the Calorie Control Council. The group represents the low- and reduced-calorie food and beverage industry.

“Low-calorie sweeteners are a tool to help provide sweet taste without calories, to address one aspect of calorie intake,” council president Robert Rankin said in a statement. “Taste preferences are an important component of dietary habits, but successful weight management requires a well-rounded strategy.”

Such strategies should address not only dietary preferences, but also physical activity and medical considerations, Rankin added.

For their review, Azad and her colleagues weeded through more than 11,000 published studies, narrowing their review down to seven clinical trials and 30 long-term studies.

The combined seven clinical trials showed that artificial sweeteners had no impact on a person’s body mass index (BMI), the researchers reported. BMI is a measurement of body fat, based on height and weight.

At the same time, the 30 observational studies showed that over an average follow-up of 10 years, people regularly using artificial sweeteners tended to develop health problems associated with excess weight.


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