Our brain has evolved to love the taste of sugar courtesy our hunter-gatherer ancestors who had more chances of survival if they had sugar, a rare food at the time. Cut to the present era, and we have never-ending choices to experience this heavenly flavour that activates pleasure centres in our brain and leads to increase in dopamine. While the naturally-occurring sugars in fruits, grains and dairy are relatively safer, refined sugar which is highly processed can put us at risk of obesity and consequently a range of diseases. (Also read: WHO says ‘no’ to non-sugar sweeteners in latest guidelines; 4 important things to know)
This is the reason people who have diseases like diabetes and blood pressure or are trying to lose weight are going for non-sugar sweeteners which are low-calorie and appear to have benefits for weight loss and avoiding diseases. From aerated drinks, biscuits, desserts, to breakfast cereals, we have a flurry of products with artificial sweeteners in them. So instead of controlling our sweet cravings, we are just giving in to them by having foods with artificial sweeteners thinking they are safe to eat. However, as per the latest guidelines of WHO (World Health Organization), NSS (non-sugar sweeteners) do not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat in adults or children and that the use of such sugar alternatives had undesirable effects like increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults.
WHAT HEALTH EXPERTS ARE SAYING ON USE OF ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
Health experts agree that use of artificial sweetener can increase risk of various physical and mental health disorders in people. Instead of helping you lose weight, they can end up contributing in weight gain as they might interfere with the body’s capacity to control calorie intake and can result in overeating and increased cravings. Non-sugar sweeteners can also impact neurotransmitter levels in the brain which can change mood and behaviour. It has been shown by studies that they lower serotonin levels in the brain, a crucial neurotransmitter involved in controlling mood and anxiety. Apart from that there is evidence of liver damage, and poor gut health due to excessive use of artificial sweeteners apart from the risk of non-communicable diseases.
ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS CAN INCREASE SUGAR CRAVINGS, CAUSE WEIGHT GAIN
“There are many products in the market that have artificial sweeteners in them, such as sodas, diet cokes, desserts, breakfast cereals, and even mints. Artificial sweeteners, when consumed in small quantities, are relatively safe, but consuming them in excess quantities or on a regular basis is very harmful to the health of people. They cause sugar cravings that directly lead to weight gain and an increased appetite for similar flavours. They reduce the body’s metabolic efficiency and make people feel lethargic and tired. There is a need to put strict warning signs on beverages and food items about the effects of heavy consumption of artificial sugars on the body. Moreover, kids very easily become addicted to these artificial food items and develop intense cravings for them. Therefore, it is important to be very conscious of limiting the intake of artificial sugar. If possible, one should eliminate it from their diet and switch to adequate quantities of natural sugar that also keep the individual’s health in check,” Bhawna Sharma, Dietitian, Manipal Hospitals, Patiala told HT Digital.
“Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia, and erythritol are consumed by people in the hope of reducing weight as they enable a decreased calorie intake. However, it has been observed that regular use or consumption of these does not lead to weight loss. In fact, it can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular diseases (heart disease and stroke), and mortality in adults. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated this fact. Despite people’s intentions to improve their health, they end up being harmed. These sweeteners may also disrupt the balance of gut microbiota, leading to increased insulin resistance and its consequences. For weight reduction, proper diet planning is required. This involves avoiding high-calorie drinks and snacks, engaging in regular physical activities or exercise, considering medication options, or, if necessary, surgery to achieve weight loss,” says Dr. Sachin Kumar Jain, Head, Department of Endocrinology, Amrita Hospital, Faridabad tells us.
EAT FRUITS, DATES AND CARROT
“Artificial sweetener can work as a double edge sword. It is not advised if taken from aspartame (banned). But if taken from stevia (plant source) it is all safe. Since artificial sweeteners have minimum calories, they are helpful during weight loss but only when are taken under medical supervision. Although instead of artificial sweeteners it is advised to use natural sweetness coming from fruits, dates, carrots etc,” Shweta Gupta, Unit Head- Dietetics, Fortis Hospital Shalimar Bagh tells us.
“The WHO has come with a position statement and advisory on the use of non-sugar sweeteners and that it does not help with weight loss in the long run. On the contrary, it increases risk of a lot of non-communicable disorders like cardiovascular disorders and type 2 diabetes. NSS (non-sugar sweeteners) do not have nutritive value and there is a misconception among lay people that consuming that over a period of time can help them reduce weight. This statement comes after review of lot of evidence which suggests that use of NSS like aspartame, saccharine, stevia etc in food or beverages does not reduce the risk of obesity or it does not have long-term effects on weight. On the contrary it increases risk of a lot of serious issues. The hypothesis is that probably by not taking non-sugar sweeteners, your cravings for sugar may decrease. WHO says we need to reduce our overall sweetness in diet and probably try to eat naturally occurring sugar in fruits rather than use non-sugar sweeteners,” says Dr Rajiv Kovil, Diabetologist, Chairperson at Zandra Healthcare, Co-founder of Rang De Neela initiative, Secretary at United Diabetes Forum in a telephonic conversation with HT Digital.
“People are widely using non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) to decrease their daily caloric intake and lose weight. Non-nutritive sweeteners have no nutritional value and also their use does not confer any long-term benefit in reducing body fat. The health-related safety of NNS consumption remains a controversial topic. There are some studies suggesting that long-term consumption can cause changes in gut microbiota composition and thus leading to health risk. We have some previous studies stating that the artificial sweeteners won’t offer any health benefits but also won’t cause any harm. However with the review of available evidence in this area, the World Health Organization has warned against using artificial sweeteners commenting that long-term use could pose health risks. Although substitution of natural sugar by NNS may be beneficial for glycemic control, consumers must be aware that long term use of these NNS is also implicated to pose health risk. Continued research in this field will uncover and clarify various doubts in this controversial area,” says Dr. Piyush Lodha Diabetologist and General Physician at Pune’s Ruby Hall Clinic.
HARMFUL EFFECTS OF ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS ON BODY AND MIND
Nutritionist Sakshi Lalwani says artificial sweeteners can interfere with insulin levels and blood sugar control. She further shares with us other harmful effects of artificial sweeteners:
“Artificial sweeteners are designed to be sweeter than sugar, but without the calories. This can lead to overconsumption of sweet foods, which in turn can lead to weight gain and other negative health outcomes. Furthermore, some studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may be linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, as they can interfere with insulin levels and blood sugar control,” says Lalwani.
In addition to the potential negative impacts on weight and blood sugar regulation, there are several other harmful effects that have been suggested by studies and research, says Lalwani:
1. Risk of cardiovascular disease: Some studies have suggested that the consumption of artificial sweeteners may be linked to an increased risk of certain cardiovascular issues, such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.
2. Digestive issues: Artificial sweeteners may interfere with the proper functioning of the digestive system, causing issues such as bloating, gas, and diarrhoea.
3. Increased risk of depression: Some studies have shown a correlation between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and an increased risk of depression, which is thought to be due to the effects on brain chemistry and serotonin levels.
“It’s important to note that while some studies have suggested these harmful effects, not all studies agree and none of these potential concerns have been definitively proven,” concludes Lalwani.