Ask Keri: I’m trying to avoid sugar but have heard artificial sweeteners can be even worse. Should I avoid those, too?
Keri Says: I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but like white sugar, I recommend avoiding artificial sweeteners as much as possible. In fact, I actually dislike them even more. My main concerns are related to how they may affect insulin levels in the body and gut health.
Why do people reach for artificial sweeteners, anyway?
The main draw of packets like Splenda and Sweet‘N Low is that you can sweeten things like your morning coffee (or companies can sweeten products like diet soda) without adding calories. That sounds just dreamy.
My first issue with them, though, is that they are exceedingly sweet (even the natural options, like stevia). They are so much sweeter than regular sugar, in fact, that using them regularly can mess with your sense of taste, making it difficult to detect pure sweetness from natural foods like fruit. In other words, rather than satisfying your hankering for sweetness, they can add to it.
Plus, your body reacts to that sweetness on your tongue by triggering hormones that will help your body process the coming calories. When those calories don’t show up, things can get thrown out of whack. Maybe, again, you crave more food, because your body is telling you it’s expecting more food.
These concerns, however, are not the main issues. Here’s what you should know about artificial sweeteners and how they affect insulin and gut health.
Artificial Sweeteners and Insulin
Okay, a refresher: When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into sugars which are absorbed into the bloodstream. That triggers the release of insulin, a hormone that helps blood sugar enter the cells, where the body can use it for energy (or store it as fat, if there’s too much!). Insulin resistance is a condition in which cells don’t respond properly to insulin and stop being able to take in sugar and use it for energy. In response, the body keeps pumping out more and more insulin. It’s a major factor that leads to type two diabetes.
There is also another way your body releases small amounts of insulin, called “cephalic phase insulin release.” In that scenario, it’s released before sugar enters the bloodstream in response to seeing, smelling, or tasting food.
This is where theories about artificial sweeteners begin: It would make sense that when you smell or taste the sweetness, it could trigger the release of excess insulin.
Research on whether consuming artificial sweeteners leads to a rise in insulin levels, however, is mixed. Studies on aspartame (used in Equal) and saccharin (in Sweet’N Low) show mixed results. But there is enough evidence to suggest sucralose (Splenda) does raise insulin levels.
Artificial Sweeteners and Gut Health
Another theory is that consuming artificial sweeteners regularly affects the balance of your gut bacteria, potentially making cells resistant to insulin, leading to increased blood sugar and insulin levels.
While it’s hard to verify that exact sequence of effects, a recent review of research found that saccharin, sucralose, and stevia do change the composition of the gut microbiome. Other lab studies have found sweeteners are toxic to gut bacteria in mice, but more research is needed.
Still, while the research is not yet completely conclusive, I’m inclined to tell you to avoid anything that seems bad for that all-important microbiome of yours. Gut health, after all, is not just about
blood sugar and insulin—the balance of microbes in your gut affects your immune system, mental health, and so much more.
The Bottom Line
If you can, skip them all. When you need to reach for one, stevia is the least bad option and there is evidence it may have some benefits. Otherwise, opt for sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar that are natural whole foods and contain beneficial nutrients—in small amounts.