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“Sugar substitutes like aspartame are designed to promote weight loss and decrease the incidence of metabolic syndrome, but a number of clinical and epidemiologic studies have suggested that these products don’t work very well and may actually make things worse.”1

The very first artificial sweeteners were created way back in the 1870s, some were banned in the 1960s and then strangely re-instated, and now artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose are everywhere and yet still the subject of much controversy.

In a bid to avoid sugar, many people choose ‘sugar-free’ versions of their favourite foods and drinks, most of which are packed with artificial sweeteners instead. With zero calories and an intense sweetness (NutraSweet is 7,000 times sweeter than normal white table sugar!) they may seem like the obvious choice whilst the ‘sugar is bad’ message reigns supreme. Until the real story on these alien chemicals escapes fully into the mainstream psyche that is.

In this latest report, (not the first to link artificial sweeteners to weight gain), a team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have identified a likely mechanism linking artificial sweeteners to weight gain. Scary stuff if you’re choosing them in a bid to lose weight.

The report was published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism and the researchers have found that mice given drinking water with added aspartame gained more weight and developed other symptoms of metabolic syndrome (glucose intolerance and systemic inflammation) than animals fed a similar diet but without aspartame. When the researchers looked into this more closely they found that aspartame actually interferes with an enzyme known to prevent metabolic syndrome1.

Senior author of the study, Richard Hodin MD commented on the findings,

“We found that aspartame blocks a gut enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP) that we previously showed can prevent obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, so we think that aspartame might not work because, even as it is substituting for sugar, it blocks the beneficial aspects of IAP.”

“People do not really understand why these artificial sweeteners don’t work. There has been some evidence that they actually can make you more hungry and may be associated with increased calorie consumption. Our findings regarding aspartame’s inhibition of IAP may help explain why the use of aspartame is counterproductive.”

Avoid artificial sweeteners and choose lasting change instead

This is the latest in a long line of studies that backs scientifically what you already know intuitively - that artificial sweeteners are best avoided. There is no quick fix or magic bullet when it comes to losing weight. Sustained weight loss happens when you make changes to your diet and lifestyle, one step at a time that last for good. Our best advice with sugar is don’t try to replace it.  Wean yourself off slowly instead. If you get used to a diet that is less sweet in general, your taste buds will soon become accustomed and you will find that you enjoy the full array of tastes in food again, not just sweet. 

1. Hodin, RA, Shireen Gul, S et al. Inhibition of the gut enzyme intestinal alkaline phosphatase may explain how aspartame promotes glucose intolerance and obesity in mice. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2016; DOI: 10.1139/apnm-2016-0346

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