Does Aspartame Help or Hinder Weight Loss?

June 26, 2019

Sweetener options on a table.
Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN

Let's face it, the desire for sweet foods and beverages is part of life. However, consuming too much added sugar may lead to weight gain and chronic diseases like prediabetes, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Therefore, the need to sweeten foods without sugar led to the creation of sugar substitutes. However, do artificial sweeteners like aspartame and weight loss correlate? Artificial sweeteners have evolved over the years — from saccharin to aspartame to sucralose — yet, whether the packet is pink, blue or yellow, there is some controversy around artificial sweeteners and weight loss.

The Science of Sugar Substitutes

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic and many times sweeter than table sugar with little-to-no calories; they make sugar-free foods more enjoyable and satisfying, but are they safe? The good news is artificial sweeteners are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are generally recognized as safe to use. The safety of artificial sweeteners, in particular aspartame, has been widely studied. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' position is that artificial sweeteners are safe when consumed within an eating plan that is guided by the federal recommendations, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends less than 10 percent of your daily calories come from added sugars. The calories can add up quickly. For example, with 16 calories in a teaspoon of table sugar, if a soft drink has 10 teaspoons of added sugar, that's 160 calories in one bottle.

Each artificial sweetener has a daily dose that is acceptable — called an adequate daily intake (ADI). For example, the ADI for aspartame, which is found in brands like NutraSweet, Equal, Sugar Twin, is 75 packets a day; for sucralose found in Splenda the ADI is 23 packets. These ADIs are hard to reach, even in frequent users. A little goes a long way with artificial sweeteners as these are 200 to 600 times sweeter than sugar.

Sugar-Free and Weight Management

You would think that cutting the sugar in what you eat and drink would benefit your waistline, but that's not necessarily true. It's a long-standing nutrition question: Do artificial sweeteners and weight loss correlate? In particular, the relationship between aspartame and weight loss is debatable. Even though foods and drinks sweetened with aspartame are lower in calories, this doesn't necessarily lead to weight loss. In fact, some research says just the opposite, that it might cause weight gain. But, how? An article in the journal, Current Diabetes Reviews, revealed that eating aspartame-sweetened foods may produce a cascade of physiological events in the body that can lead to weight gain. The research findings revealed that aspartame may induce stress in the body and increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may cause weight gain around the waistline. This can increase oxidative stress in the body, which can produce excessive free radicals causing a change in the activity of the gut microbes. Changes in the flora of the gut can affect metabolic health. In turn, this can lead to changes in chemical receptors causing insulin deficiency and resistance, which can cause type 2 diabetes or worsen this preexisting condition.

With artificial sweeteners replacing sugar in soft drinks, flavored waters, energy drinks, desserts, grains, dairy products and snack foods, there are potential side effects, such as an aftertaste, gut microbial effects, as well as irritating the bowel with gas, bloating and diarrhea from natural, fermentable carbohydrates in low-calorie sweeteners that contain sugar alcohols or polyols, such as xylitol, maltitol and sorbitol.

Moderate Your Sweet Tooth

Keep in mind, more research is needed on artificial sweeteners and weight loss. However, sugar-free foods should be used in moderation, and replacing sugar with artificial or low-calorie sweeteners, does not mean a food is calorie-free. Portion control of sweet treats is important, and getting in naturally sweet whole foods like fruits and vegetables is vital to your overall health and wellness.

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