Could Artificial Sweeteners Make You Gain Weight?

Wednesday 26th July 2017

A study carried out in Canada suggests a link between consuming artificial sweeteners, weight gain and the risk of diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure, although questions have been raised about the quality of the study and how close the connection is.

Artificial sweeteners are so common as to be almost ubiquitous in the diets of most people. From people who take Splenda in their tea, to aspartame in a number of fizzy drinks as well as dozens of others used in everything from cereal to toothpaste, often advertised on diet products on the strength of being better for teeth, low in fat and reducing the risks related to sugar consumption.

With this however, there have been questions for decades regarding the actual health benefits and whether many sugar substitutes are healthy to consume in large quantities.

To help with this, researchers from the University of Manitoba, as well as a number hospitals and medical institutions in Canada produced a collated meta-analysis of 37 studies and over 400,000 people over an average period of 10 years. These consisted of 7 randomised control trials that looked into adults who were overweight, had high blood pressure or were considered obese, and consisted of asking a participant to take one combination of an artificial sweetener capsule, a diet drink containing an artificial sweetener or a placebo pill and water on a daily basis for between six and twenty four months. The cohort studies were concerned with a wider mix of people from healthy weights to obese, and grouped them by their artificial sweetener consumption. They were then followed up for changes to BMI, body weight and any development of diabetes or cardiovascular disease over a time frame between nine months and thirty eight years.

The results, contrary to advertising and previous studies were that while in the randomised trials there was no effect on BMI nor weight change, the cohort studies suggested that there was a slight increase in risk of weight gain, stroke, high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes.

The results seem fairly conclusive, and the researchers present the strong notion that as a result the stated benefits of artificial sweeteners are not merited by the evidence.

However, this is based on taking the meta-analysis as a complete study, which exposes a number of limitations. The different trials had a limited number of participants and wild variability of conditions, which increases the chance the results found could occur simply by random chance.

The cohort studies were even less useful as a pooled whole, with huge variation between the measurement of outcomes, the length of the study and even the artificial sweetener used. Also, many of the studies had limited controls, so the results could be confounded by the consumption of other foods and drinks, as well as other factors.

The blame for this can’t really be laid at the feet of the researchers, they provided a thorough analysis with the information available, but with a lack of high quality evidence available, the picture provided is murky at best.

Like with many things, moderation is the key to better health and more high research will need to be undertaken for the true effects of artificial sweeteners on people’s health to be seen.