Sweet relief? Sugar substitutes don't offer health benefits for individuals with obesity

Artificial sweeteners help individuals with obesity to cut calories and lose weight but may have negative health effects, according to researchers at York University’s Faculty of Health.

Jennifer Kuk

Jennifer Kuk

“Our study shows that individuals with obesity who consume artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame, may have worse glucose management than those who don't take sugar substitutes,” said Professor Jennifer Kuk, obesity researcher in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science.

Normally, weight loss is associated with several improvements in health. Artificial sweeteners are often used to help individuals cut calories and manage their weight as they are not digested by the body. However, the recent study suggests that the bacteria in the gut may be able to break down artificial sweeteners, resulting in negative health effects.

“We didn’t find this adverse effect in those consuming saccharin or natural sugars,” says Kuk. “We will need to do future studies to determine whether any potentially negative health effects of artificial sweeteners outweigh the benefits for obesity reduction.”

Currently, there are many new sugar substitutes that are used in foods.

For the study, data from 2,856 U.S. adults from the Third National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES III) was used. Individuals taking part in the study reported their diet over a 24-hour period and were categorized as consumers of artificial sweeteners (aspartame or saccharin), or high or low consumers of natural sugars (sugar or fructose). Diabetes risk was measured as the ability to manage blood sugars using an oral glucose tolerance test.

Aspartame intake is associated with greater glucose intolerance in individuals with obesity, was published May 24 in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. The study was funded by Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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