Quick Summary tl;dr
Most artificial sweeteners spike your blood sugar, stimulating "hormonal hunger" and compelling you to eat when your body doesn't need food.
Artificial sweeteners also tend to mess up the gut microbiome, leading to glucose intolerance and other metabolic maladies, and can even directly screw with neurochemistry in your brain!
If you need a sweet taste, erythritol and stevia are the best options. Fennel is a great vegetable because it contains a naturally sweet chemical, anethole, but is super low-carb. Vanilla is great to use because it tricks your brain into perceiving sweetness.
There’s been debate over whether “you can have your cake and eat it too,” i.e. whether zero-calorie sweeteners are safe to eat or, in the long-term, are detrimental to health.
The short answer is “no,” and here are three reasons why. Many artificial sweeteners:
- (I) spike your blood sugar just like real sugar, setting you on the “insulin roller coaster”
- (II) screw up your microbiome to cause glucose intolerance
- (III) mess directly with your neurochemistry and brain function!
If you prefer to watch a video explaining this in detail, click here.
1. Do Artificial Sweeteners Drive Hormonal Hunger?
Let’s start with blood sugar spikes and the insulin roller coaster. When it comes to your body’s hormones, insulin is like your blood glucose’s shadow. When you blood sugar goes up, insulin tends to follow. The problem is that many sweeteners spike your blood sugar, which then comes crashing down.
The insulin roller coaster refers to the hormonal shifts that pattern this rise and fall in blood sugar, which research reveals activates the reward center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, and drives the sensation of hunger ( 1).
The punch line is that most artificial sweeteners drive hormonal hunger (which is different from when your body is truly hungry for nutrients), compelling you to eat every few hours, constantly spike your insulin, and remain on the sickening coaster.
Most artificial sweeteners drive hormonal hunger, compelling you to eat every few hours, constantly spike your insulin, and remain on the sickening coaster.
2. How Do Artificial Sweeteners Affect the Microbiome?
But, in my opinion, an even scary facet of artificial sweeteners is their potential impact on the gut microbiome — the community of microorganisms that live in our gastrointestinal systems and govern almost every aspect of our health.
Artificial Sweeteners in Mice
And paper published in the journal Nature ( 2) reveals a shocking truth that is anything but sweet. The researchers behind this paper began by examining what happened to different groups of mice fed any of three different artificial sweeteners (saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame) as compared to mice fed normal sugars (glucose and sucrose).
Worryingly, all of the mice that were fed the artificial sweeteners quickly developed glucose intolerance, a harbinger of diabetes, obesity, and metabolic disease. The researchers also noted that the artificial sweeteners altered the mice’s gut bacteria.
To test to see if the change in the gut bacteria caused the artificial sweetener-induced metabolic disruption, the researchers transplanted the gut bacteria from the mice fed artificial sweeteners to mice that had no gut bacteria. Sure enough, the recipient mice became glucose intolerant as well, proving the change in gut bacteria was mediating the negative health effects of the artificial sweeteners.
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Artificial Sweeteners in Humans
But mice are mice and humans are humans. If the story stopped there, maybe we could shrug off the results and play ignorant, enjoying our Splenda in our morning coffee guilt free. Damn scientific rigor…
The researchers next examined whether there was an association between artificial sweetener intake and poor health in humans. Sure enough, a higher intake of artificial sweeteners was associated with a greater weigh-to-hip ratio (a marker for obesity), higher fasting blood sugar, and higher HbA1c (a marker for diabetes).
But that’s not all… To prove the causative effect of the artificial sweeteners in humans, the researchers gave 7 healthy people who did not normally consume artificial sweeteners, foods containing artificial sweeteners for 1 week.
In just 1 week, 4 of the 7 people developed glucose intolerance. What’s more, when the microbiomes from these people were transferred into mice without microbiomes, those mice also became glucose intolerant. This demonstrates that artificial sweeteners can screw up the gut microbiome in humans to cause glucose intolerance and metabolic imbalances that pave the way for obesity and chronic disease.
Both animal and human data show that artificial sweeteners can screw up the gut microbiome to cause glucose intolerance and metabolic imbalances that pave the way for obesity and chronic disease.
3. How Do Artificial Sweeteners Affect Brain Function?
Finally, artificial sweeteners can directly negatively impact neurochemistry and brain function. Let’s use aspartame, the sweetener in Diet Coke, as an example. Mechanistically, aspartame can block the uptake of precursors for important neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin, into the brain ( 3).
In rats, aspartame has been shown to alter activity in critical brain regions like the amygdala, the fear and anxiety center, and the cerebral cortex ( 4). The mechanisms and animal data align with associations that have been observed in humans. Specifically, aspartame consumption has been linked to learning problems, seizure, migraines, irritability, headaches, depression, and insomnia ( 5)!
Don't use aspartame. Aspartame consumption has been linked to learning problems, seizure, migraines, irritability, headaches, depression, and insomnia.
What Are the Best Low-Carb Sweeteners?
But let’s get practical. Not everyone is going to forgo sweet flavors, and that’s totally fine. So long as your decisions are informed and purposeful towards achieving your highest quality of life, I’m proud of you. And if sweetness if going to be part of that equation, here are some options to consider.
First, erythritol and stevia don’t appear to have the same negative impacts on glucose and/or insulin, the microbiome, or neurochemistry as many other sweeteners.
Opt for sweeteners made with stevia and erythritol. They don't affect blood sugar, insulin and they don't appear to have overtly negative impacts on the microbiome, neurochemistry and brain function.
Neither are insulinogenic (beyond a tiny little burst of insulin you release when your tongue tastes anything sweet), neither appears to screw up the microbiome (erythritol is mostly absorbed in the small intestine, and the 5% that makes it to the colon doesn’t usually get fermented by gut bacteria; and stevia also doesn’t appear to have overtly negative impacts on the microbiome), and neither erythritol nor stevia dramatically messes with neurochemistry (at least not to my current awareness).
But besides these two non-caloric sweeteners, you can try to go all natural and hack it with fennel or vanilla. Fennel (which contains 4 grams of net carbs per 100 grams, raw) contains anethole, a natural compound that is 13-times (6) sweeter than sugar.
Vanilla is a base flavor in many sweets and, thus, overtime your brain has learned to associate vanilla with sweetness. As a result, when you have vanilla alone, your brain is prone to perceive sweetness in the absence of sugar. So, returning to our original question, “can you have your cake and eat it too?” I’m not sure. I wonder if Martina can develop a fennel-vanilla cake?
Fun fact: Why does fennel taste sweet? Fennel (which contains 4 grams of net carbs per 100 grams) contains anethole, a natural compound that is 13-times sweeter than sugar!
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