Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC
Alright, now I’m confused. I thought that if I dropped the sugar out of my life, I’d get lighter, happier, have a nice car, and maybe grow my hair back. Now science is telling me otherwise. You can’t imagine the turmoil of emotions now effervescing in my head like a hot Coke®.
Artificial sweeteners are usually chemicals that look like sugar enough that they have a sweet taste, but cannot be digested in the human gastrointestinal tract. Aspartame, sucralose (Splenda), and Stevia have found their way into diet drinks, muffins, diet foods, and even toothpaste and medications.
I have bad news for us today. First, a new study in the Canadian Medical Journal tells us that artificial sweeteners may not help us lose weight at all. An analysis of more than 11,000 studies on artificial sweeteners looked at the effects of these chemicals on body mass index (BMI). Lead author Mechan Azad of the University of Manitoba said, “There’s no clear evidence for benefit from the artificial sweeteners, and there is a potential that they have a negative impact, but we need more research to figure it out for sure.”
That sounds fairly benign, but the long-term studies in this paper suggest that people who use low-calorie sweeteners regularly are more likely to be obese, have diabetes, and suffer from cardiovascular disease, such as hypertension and stroke. That’s enough to make me put my muffin down.
I asked myself, “Self, how can this happen? Why would artificial sweeteners make me gain weight? Isn’t that a paradox?” No, seriously, I asked myself that out loud. I was alone.
This takes us to the second piece of bad news, compliments of Scientific American. It seems that those artificial sweeteners are changing the bacterial composition of your intestinal tract in ways that do not work in your favor. Who knew?
Your intestines are warm, moist, nutrient-rich places for bacteria to hang out. They have everything they need to live there except cable television. Some of these bugs are your friends, while others have the potential to make you quite sick. Normally, there is a balance between these, or a shift in the direction of “good” bacteria to keep us healthy. Many of us take probiotics for that reason, or “pre-biotics” to feed the good bacteria in the gut.
An Israeli study finds that artificial sweeteners increase the population of bacteria that are highly efficient at hogging our nutrients and processing them into fat, which we then store on our hips, tummies, and worse—around our organs.
The Israeli study involved two groups of mice. One was fed sugar, while one was fed with artificial sweeteners. Eleven weeks later, the sugar group was healthy. The other group was obese and had high glucose levels. This is the essence of glucose intolerance. The next step is diabetes and risk for heart and liver disease, just like we see in humans with metabolic syndrome.
By the way, the Israelis gave the obese mice broad-spectrum antibiotics to wipe out their intestinal bacteria so they could start over, and removed the artificial sweeteners from their food. Result? They recovered their health. Weight dropped off, and glucose levels corrected. Word is that they refused to participate in future projects.
A study on humans found similar results. Humans who used artificial sweeteners were more likely to be obese and exhibit impaired glucose tolerance.
The evidence suggests that the bacteria in our intestinal tracts have much to do with our metabolism and processing of nutrients. Indeed, what we choose to eat helps determine the composition and proportion of those bacterial species. Could it be that we really are what we eat?
I have personally relaxed my restriction on natural sugar, using it sparingly. I indulge in sweet tea for lunch. I eat fruit now. I use fewer Splendas. I’ve started walking. I use my Take Shape for Life program, which involves eating smaller meals with low-glycemic carbohydrates and high quality protein. So far I am down about 12 pounds in a month. I’m not setting records for speed in weight loss, but I am make sane, positive steps.
Bottom line: Do you have weight issues? You might have bacterial issues created, ironically, by your own measures to drop weight. It’s more complicated than you think, but the battle can be won.