Ask an R.D.: Are Artificial Sweeteners Bad for You?By Carole Anderson Lucia Reviewed by Briana Rodriquez, R.D. Science-Backed
Are you trying to reduce the amount of sugar in your diet to help support your weight loss and health goals? Wondering if artificial sweeteners are a good alternative or if they’re bad for you?
We’ve got you covered. We tapped Jenny Craig’s Registered Dietitian, Briana Rodriquez, to help explain what the current research says about artificial sweeteners, how they might impact your weight loss journey, and healthy choices you can make to support your health.
While sugar substitutes can either be synthetic or naturally derived, and referred to in numerous ways, we’ll refer to them simply as artificial sweeteners here. Remember to always consult your health care provider before making changes to your diet or starting a weight loss program.
Putting the sugar problem in perspective
Photo by sheri silver on Unsplash
There’s no doubt about it: As a society, we’re consuming a lot of sugar — and experts agree. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health,1 the average American eats or drinks 22 teaspoons of added sugar daily — at a count of 350 extra calories every day.
To put that in perspective, the American Heart Association (AHA)2 recommends that most women should limit their added sugar intake to about six teaspoons and that most men should limit theirs to nine teaspoons daily.
So why is eating too much sugar a problem? Research indicates that consuming excess amounts can cause a host of health issues over time, including weight gain, diabetes and heart problems.3 It’s important to note that naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit and low-fat dairy products, are typically not the concern, Rodriquez says; added sugars, found in things like soda, pastries and candy, are.
“Eating too much added sugar on a regular basis can contribute to long-term problems for your health,” Rodriquez says. “While you don’t need to cut out sugar from your diet completely, monitoring your intake is a great place to start.”
Are artificial sweeteners a healthy alternative?
Photo by nortonrsx on iStock
If you’ve made a commitment to reduce your sugar intake, you may be wondering whether artificial sweeteners — which are many times sweeter than sugar but have little to no calories — are a good option when it comes to sweetening your morning cup of coffee or oatmeal.
Here are some of the potential pros and cons of artificial sugar alternatives.
You might lose weight
Experts at the Mayo Clinic4 report that these types of sweeteners do have some potential benefits: They typically don’t cause a rise in blood sugar levels, as sugar does, since they don’t contain any carbohydrates. Artificial sweeteners also might help with weight loss, they add, although it’s not clear whether they can help with long-term weight maintenance.
You might reduce your calorie consumption
While research is inconclusive, artificial sweeteners may be used instead of sugar to reduce calories and lower sugar intake.5
You might eat more
On the flip side, consuming artificial sweeteners regularly, and in excess, might increase your cravings for sweet foods and beverages. Rodriquez explains, “Artificial sweeteners trick your system into thinking you’re eating something sweet and calorie-rich. When your body doesn’t get the fuel it’s expecting, you might want to eat more to fulfill that need.”
You might skimp on beneficial nutrients
You could be missing out on essential nutrients if you’re opting for artificially sweetened foods over whole foods. For example, while an apple contains natural sugar, it’s rich in dietary fiber (which helps you feel full) and an array of vitamins and antioxidants.6 On the other hand, a small sugar-free cookie has roughly the same amount of calories, but contains hardly any fiber and little to no vitamins.7
“If you’re accustomed to consuming sugar-filled products, it can be a hard habit to break,” Rodriquez acknowledges. “But replacing all of those products with artificially sweetened alternatives isn’t the best solution. You can create much healthier habits by focusing on reducing your overall sugar intake and being mindful of your food choices.”
What about diet drinks?
Photo by sorin popa on Unsplash
Regularly drinking sugar-laden beverages, like soda, can quickly derail your weight loss efforts. Although “diet drinks” may help replace sugar-laden beverages, experts generally suggest consuming them in moderation — if at all. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health,5 for instance, says that if you are trying to reduce your intake of sugary drinks, diet soda may be a good short-term alternative, “best used in small amounts over a short period of time.”
As for potential negative side effects, research published by the American Diabetes Association suggests that long-term consumption of diet soda may be associated with a greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.8 But more research is needed to establish a causal relationship.
“While replacing sugar-filled beverages with diet alternatives can be a good first step, it’s best to drink unsweetened, natural beverages, like water, instead,” states Rodriquez. “Water flavored naturally with sliced cucumber or fruit, is an excellent way to stay hydrated and support your weight loss goals,” she explains.
Are artificial sweeteners bad for you?
Many people worry that artificial sweeteners are bad for you because of reports that they might cause cancer. While research is ongoing, the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)9 has refuted this concern, stating that there is “no clear evidence” that the artificial sweeteners that are available commercially in the U.S. are associated with an increased risk of cancer in people. However, it’s still smart to watch your consumption as with any other food or beverage.
So what’s the bottom line?
Artificial sweeteners can be a good first step when it comes to reducing your sugar intake, but to create healthier habits, it’s best to focus on consuming quality foods and beverages while limiting added sugars. Rodriquez emphasizes choosing whole foods and unsweetened beverages over artificially sweetened products. “By reaching for foods such as fruits and vegetables that are naturally sweet, you’ll be providing your body with the nutrients it needs while supporting your overall health,” she states.
Want to reduce your sugar intake? Your personal weight loss consultant at Jenny Craig can help. Click here for a free appointment and get started on the path to better health today!
Carole is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California who specializes in health and wellness topics. Her work has appeared in Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Mom & Baby, Yahoo News, Viv magazine and Lifescript. She's won several national awards for her work including a National Science Award and two National Health Information awards. A frequent contributor to Jenny Craig’s Blog, Healthy Habits, she enjoys gardening, spending time at the beach and adopting far too many rescue animals in her spare time.
Favorite healthy snack: jicama dipped in homemade hummus
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources including scientific, peer-reviewed papers. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.