You may not know this, but the origin of the phrase “there is no free lunch” comes from the turn of the twentieth century when many bars were owned by breweries. They would offer the new immigrant poor a free lunch filled with salty stuff guaranteed to make them thirsty. Artificial sweeteners are a bit like that: the idea seems appealing, kind of like a free lunch, until you read the research. Then the whole argument crumbles. Let me explain.
Defining Sugar Metabolism and Diabetes
Sugar turns to glucose in the blood, which the body uses as fuel. When our blood sugar increases, the beta cells in a healthy pancreas release just the right amount of the hormone insulin to keep our blood sugar regulated by transporting the sugar from the bloodstream into the cells so they can properly function.
Diabetes occurs when the pancreatic cells can’t produce enough insulin to properly regulate the blood sugar. Why? For type-2 diabetes, after years of sugar overload, the stressed and weakened pancreas may no longer be able to keep up. Or the body may become insulin resistant. The pancreas might be producing the same amount of insulin, but the cells no longer respond the same way. Whatever the reason, the cells that require the insulin for sugar transport in order to function and grow will starve. And all of that excess sugar now circulating through the blood can damage the heart and blood vessels, the brain, and other organ systems. Additionally, way before someone becomes diabetic, excess sugar can fuel metabolic syndrome as we reach middle age. Metabolic syndrome is associated with obesity, type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and so on.
It’s important to note that while type-1 diabetes is an unpreventable autoimmune disease in which patients will always have to take insulin, type-2 diabetes is commonly associated environmental choices, such as metabolic syndrome, poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle. Type-2 diabetes is what we are talking about today.
Excess sugar doesn’t just wreak havoc on the bodies of the unhealthy; it will also rear its ugly head in a healthy person who increases his or her sugar consumption. How? One study found that healthy men who shifted their diet to one higher in sugar experienced an increase in liver fat, a change in their metabolism of fat (which could eventually result in heart disease), and weight gain.
As I’m sure you know, sugar isn’t the only sweet choice out there. We all know people who down zero-calorie diet drinks like they are water, so are the fake sugar artificial sweeteners (e.g., aspartame, sucralose, saccharin) the healthy alternative?
Fake Sugar: Are Artificial Sweeteners a Magic Sugar Substitute?
It’s easy to understand why so many turn to diet drinks and foods substituting artificial sweeteners for sugar. A 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, for example, has 39 grams (about 9 tsp) of sugar and 150 calories; a 12-ounce can of diet Coca-Cola has 0 grams of sugar and 0 calories. Seems like a no-brainer of a choice. Add to this, marketing promises that diet products will appease a consumers’ sweet tooth but without the weight gain and other harmful effects of sugar. Marketing can become so aggressive that it’s even pitted manufacturers of artificial sweeteners against each other (e.g., a few years ago, when the makers of Equal sued the makers of Splenda for misleading advertising that led consumers to believe it is a natural product [it is not]—this was after Splenda filed a complaint against Equal for using packaging similar to its own).
Marketing and fake-sugar industry squabbling aside, artificial sweeteners come with their own harmful effects, and I’ve covered a number of studies showing these over the years. I’ll review a few of these in a moment, but first let’s look at the newest study linking artificial sweeteners and diabetes.
The new study consisted of two groups of diabetes-prone rats. Why use this type of animal, because this models the average American with metabolic syndrome. Over a period of three weeks, one was given a diet high in natural sugars (glucose and fructose) and the other was given a diet high in artificial sweeteners (aspartame and acesulfame potassium). Researchers then investigated the rats’ blood and found metabolic changes in both groups. While this study suggested the mechanisms by which this occurred in the sugar and artificial sweetener group were different, the resulting metabolic changes and diabetes risk was the same.
A previous study also supports an artificial sweetener and diabetes risk. This one found that artificial sweeteners were so good at pretending to be sugar that they triggered the same insulin release as sugar. In other words, the beta cells in the pancreas couldn’t tell the difference.
Prior Studies on Artificial Sweeteners
Diabetes risk isn’t the only problem with artificial sweeteners. Other studies have given us many reasons to emphasize that artificial sweeteners are certainly not a magic substitute. Let’s review a few fake-sugar studies.
Our bodies thrive on a healthy gut-bacteria ratio, and artificial sweeteners have been shown to disrupt this gut balance, increasing the risk for obesity with metabolic syndrome and potentially diabetes. So while consumers may be chugging diet drinks in hopes of losing weight, these diet drinks may, in fact, be causing them to gain weight. Artificial sweeteners have also been linked to an increase in the risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, and stroke. I always recommend cutting sugar to improve your stem cell function, but this doesn’t mean switch to the fake stuff. Artificial sweeteners may also result in poorer quality stem cells, the cells in our body responsible for repair and healing.
The upshot? As our ancestors said a century ago, there is no free lunch. When it comes to artificial sweeteners, your body views these similar to sugar with all of the same issues. So you are not doing yourself any favors downing 12 diet Cokes a day! In fact, the only thing benefitting is your sense that you’re getting a free lunch, but your body knows different!