What artificial sweeteners do to your health

They've been linked to diabetes, stroke and dementia.

Not all sweeteners are built the same. (Photo: Gayvoronskaya_Yana/Shutterstock)

My mother used to joke about my “drinking problem.” But before you think I have a problem with alcohol, know that my issue had nothing to do with wine. It was the 2-liter bottle of diet soda that I went through almost daily that she saw as an issue.

I kicked my diet soda addiction several years ago after I started paying attention to what I was putting in my body. I stopped buying anything with artificial sweeteners in it. Although I didn’t know at the time that artificial sweeteners aren’t particularly effective in achieving weight loss or can increase your chances of getting diabetes, I knew I didn’t want so many artificial foods in my family’s diet. I initially went with my gut on that decision, and now my gut has a reason to thank me.

A recent scientific study suggests that the reason artificial sweeteners may be a factor in diabetes, even though they don’t contain sugar, is because they mess with gut bacteria. Rodale reports that scientists found that when mice drank water that contained the artificial sugar substitutes saccharin, aspartame and sucralose, the mice developed glucose intolerance — something that can be linked to type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases. Mice fed plain water or water with regular sugar didn’t develop the glucose intolerance.

When scientists manipulated the gut bacteria in the mice’s stomachs and killed most of it off, they found that the glucose intolerance disappeared.

Based on what they found in mice, scientists conducted a small trial on humans that measured the gut bacteria of healthy people who consumed artificial sweeteners. They found that after just one week, participants started showing glucose intolerance and their gut bacteria composition had changed.

Diet sodas and stroke and dementia

More recently, a new study found a link between diet sodas and a higher risk of stroke and dementia. The research didn't show a direct cause-and-effect relationship, only causation, and the researchers point out that the study had many limitations. Yet, because people who drank diet soda every day were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia, researchers suggest that they may not be the healthiest alternative. The study was published in the American Heart Association's journal Stroke.

“Our study shows a need to put more research into this area given how often people drink artificially-sweetened beverages,” Matthew Pase, Ph.D., a senior fellow in the department of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

And don't swap your diet soda for a regular soda or other sugary drink, the researchers caution.

“Although we did not find an association between stroke or dementia and the consumption of sugary drinks, this certainly does not mean they are a healthy option," Pase said. "We recommend that people drink water on a regular basis instead of sugary or artificially sweetened beverages.”

It’s important to remember that artificial sweeteners aren’t only found in diet sodas. They can also be found in other low-calorie treats like yogurt, ice cream, bakery products and candy.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in September 2014.


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