Artificial Sweeteners Linked to Body Composition, Study Suggests


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Aug 05, 2023

Artificial Sweeteners Linked to Body Composition, Study Suggests

We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article. Why Trust Us? New research points to a link between non-nutritive sweeteners and increased fat stores. Non-nutritive

We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article. Why Trust Us?

New research points to a link between non-nutritive sweeteners and increased fat stores.

Non-nutritive sweeteners, such as aspartame and saccharin, have been common sugar substitutes in a wide range of foods and beverages—from diet sodas and “light” yogurt to cereals and sugar-free syrup—since the mid-1970s.

Despite their ubiquity, long-term consumption of these artificial sweeteners may have a negative effect on how your body stores fat, according to research in the International Journal of Obesity.

Looking at more than 3,000 men and women who have been enrolled in a study on coronary artery risk development over the past 25 years, researchers assessed data on dietary habits as well as three types of fat: visceral, intermuscular, and subcutaneous.

Of those three, visceral fat, which is not visible but gets stored in the stomach and surrounds the organs, has been highlighted most in past research due to its role in raising risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. But that doesn’t let the other two off the hook. Too much intermuscular fat is considered a predictor of less muscle strength and mobility function, and subcutaneous fat—the type just beneath the skin—can be protective to some degree, but too much of it can also raise health risks.

In the recent study, researchers found that participants who regularly had artificial sweeteners had higher levels of all three types of fat, even after accounting for other factors like quantity and quality of food.

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“The takeaway here is that it’s important to find alternatives to artificial sweeteners in foods and beverages, especially since these added sweeteners may have negative health consequences,” said principal investigator Lyn Steffen, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota.

She told Runner’s World that more studies are needed to better understand the connection between artificial sweetener consumption and increased body fat, but the findings do raise concerns about recommendations from the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association that promote replacement of added sugars with these sweeteners.

This research finding is in addition to a significant finding issued in mid-July by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Research Agency on Cancer, which suggested that aspartame is a possible carcinogen.

However, another WHO group, the Expert Committee on Food Additives, countered that the current daily amount is still safe to consume. That daily threshold is 40 milligrams per kilogram of body weight for adults. For someone who weighs about 150 pounds, that amount adds up to nearly 14 cans of Diet Coke.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has set a slightly higher daily limit of 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, noted in a statement that it disagrees with the WHO cancer group’s conclusion.

“Aspartame is one of the most studied food additives in the human food supply,” the FDA wrote. “FDA scientists do not have safety concerns when aspartame is used under the approved conditions. The sweetener is approved in many countries.”

As the debate rolls on about the effect of these sweeteners, with much more research likely in the near future, what individuals can do is assess how sweeteners may be affecting them, suggested dietitian Tamara Duker Freuman, R.D., author of The Bloated Belly Whisperer. Even if they’re deemed safe by the FDA, these sweeteners may not play well with everyone in terms of digestion and tolerance.

“There are many artificial and natural sweeteners, including stevia, aspartame, sucralose, xylitol, erythritol, and others,” Freuman told Runner’s World. “For some people, these sweeteners tend to cause gastrointestinal discomfort like gas or stomach upset, so it’s helpful to pay attention to how you feel if you add more of these into your diet.”

Also, as with most foods and especially processed foods, it’s always best to consume in moderation, which means limiting intake when you can.

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food.

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