Plus, the ONLY sweetener that’s safe to use
Sometimes, my work as a diabetes doctor feels like an attempt to slay a mythical hydra. Every time I think I’ve lopped a head off of this beast, two equally lethal ones always seem to pop up in its place.
And nowhere is this frustrating analogy more appropriate than in my ongoing fight against the deadliest dietary demon of them all: sugar.
There’s no question that I still have a long way to go in my personal crusade against sugar. But the message is getting out there, slowly but surely. And at least we’re no longer living in complete denial when it comes to our national addiction.
The public is finally starting to come around to the fact that sugar kills. (Even if they’re still being fooled into thinking that red meat is somehow a bigger threat…or that a “moderate” amount of sugar in your diet is somehow safe.)
So why aren’t I celebrating? Because even as this battle winds down, a new one is just getting started. And once again, the soda business is to blame.
Yet another “diet” product that’s anything but
It’s hard to imagine anyone STILL falling for the line that artificial sweeteners are somehow good for you. These are chemicals after all—many of which have spent the last several decades hopping on and off of the list of known cancer-causing agents.
But this hasn’t stopped the beverage industry from peddling their “diet” products as a healthier alternative to sugary drinks. (Leave it to Big Soda to find a way to capitalize on the obesity crisis they had a big hand in creating.)
The problem here isn’t just that these sugar substitutes are potentially carcinogenic, of course. That would be bad enough. Thanks to new research, we’re also finding out (and not for the first time, either) that they may increase your risk for heart disease, too.
A recent review and meta-analysis delivered so-called “mixed evidence” supporting the role of artificial sweeteners in weight loss. (Hardly a glowing endorsement for products that often feature the word “diet” in their names.) But that’s not even the worst part…
Results also showed that consuming artificial sweeteners on a daily basis may actually be linked with weight gain over the long haul… and more concerning, a higher risk of cardiometabolic disease.1
Meanwhile, nearly half of all Americans use these sugar substitutes regularly. (In fact, studies have revealed that a very large portion of people consume artificial sweeteners without knowing it. They’re even turning up in the blood and urine samples of people who report avoiding them.)
Just as a reminder, here’s why that’s a problem: Research has established significant links between non-nutritive sweeteners and gains in body weight, BMI, and waist size.2 Not to mention elevated risks of high blood pressure, stroke, heart-related events, and type 2 diabetes.
And we’re not talking about the results of some tiny one-off study, either. We’re talking about big, reputable studies featuring large groups of subjects that researchers followed for a lengthy duration.
One of these is the famous Framingham Heart Study—which showed that people who drank one or more cans of diet soda every day faced triple the risk of stroke and dementia, as compared to people who never touched the stuff.3
Granted, one could argue that unhealthy people simply tend to reach for artificial sweeteners more often—not that the sweeteners themselves do any damage. But a single look at the latest findings flushes that theory right down the toilet… where it belongs.
Recent studies have shown, for example, that artificial sweeteners alter the microbiome in rodents and humans—making it “obesogenic.”4-5 In fact, evidence also suggests that regularly consuming these chemicals hijacks the metabolism, paving the way toward high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and weight gain.6
That happened to be the exact takeaway of the first human trial on the regular intake of artificial sweeteners. The results made headlines late last year. And needless to say, they weren’t reassuring.
Fake sugar is fueling the diabesity crisis, too
This new trial found that artificial sweeteners change the way your gut responds to sugar—very much for the worse. It increases the amount of glucose that your body absorbs, as well as its glycemic response. And it also blocks production of a peptide called GLP-1.
Among GLP-1’s significant roles: increasing the release of insulin (which lowers blood sugar) and blocking the release of glucagon (which raises blood sugar). This is a complex hormonal dance—but one the body is well equipped to handle if we don’t mess it up by eating too much sugar and simple carbohydrates.
Or, as it turns out, too much artificial sweetener.
This clinical study looked at healthy subjects and their response to common chemical sugar substitutes like sucralose and acesulfame-K—exactly the kind you’ll find in most popular diet drinks. It was two weeks long, randomized, and double-blind. During that time, one group had artificial sweeteners added to their diet, and the other didn’t.
At the outset, both groups had similar gut responses to sugar. But it didn’t take long for that to change… dramatically. In fact, it only took two weeks.
At the end of the study, the group consuming artificial sweetener daily saw significant uptakes of glucose, both 90 and 120 minutes after eating. A full 20 percent more than the placebo group, to be exact. And their blood sugar levels rose by nearly 25 percent because of it.
And that’s not all. Their GLP-1 response dropped by
34 percent compared with placebo—a startling trend, considering how critical this peptide is to proper blood sugar metabolism.7
To sum it up: Artificial sweeteners put your body’s blood sugar control into a tailspin—sending post-meal glucose levels soaring. And they do it in just two weeks!
So, sugar isn’t the only “anti-nutrient” fueling the diabesity epidemic. Artificial sweeteners are another clear culprit behind the astronomical rise in both obesity and diabetes—and the fact that they’re marketed as “diet-friendly” only adds insult to injury.
The only sugar substitute that doubles as a solution
In general, I think it’s best to avoid using sweeteners of any kind on a regular basis. Limiting your intake helps to reboot your palate and re-sensitize your taste buds. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a treat on occasion. Especially since there are natural sweeteners out there that don’t carry the same risks as chemical sugar substitutes.
In fact, one of my favorite picks isn’t just safe for dieters and diabetics. It might even play a critical nutritional role in the fight against diabesity.
I’m talking, of course, about stevia—the all-natural, non-caloric sweetener extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. Its active component, stevioside, is up to 300 times sweeter than regular table sugar (so you need much, much less of it). And people across the world have been safely using it as a sweetener for ages.
Its reputation in the research community, however, is only just heating up. And suffice it to say, recent studies have reached some pretty exciting conclusions…
For example, clinical research presented at the 2016 meeting of the Endocrine Society examined the effects of stevia consumption among a group of 40 subjects with metabolic syndrome. All subjects followed the same low-calorie diet for four months. But they were also randomly assigned to receive either a stevia snack four times a week, or a sweet of their choosing once a week.
Researchers evaluated every metabolic metric under the sun—from BMI and waist size to blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, hormone levels, and liver function. In the end, the control group did lose weight. But only the stevia group had significant reductions in a long list of risk parameters—including blood pressure, fasting glucose, oxidized LDL, and leptin levels.8
Another group of researchers published a comprehensive review confirming these health benefits in the Journal of Medicinal Food just last year. Among their findings: Stevia’s unique glycosides—the compounds that give it its sweetness—are uniquely capable of reducing metabolic risk.
Not only that, but this plant also boasts roughly 100 additional nutrients and phytochemicals with powerful antioxidant and medicinal properties—including phenols and flavonoids.
In other words, the potential benefits of stevia aren’t just limited to metabolic health. In addition to being able to stimulate insulin release from pancreatic beta cells, these researchers identified a dizzying list of other potential uses—against anything from heartburn and cavities, to inflammation, fungal infections, and even cancer.9
Needless to say, this is one sweetener worth keeping in your pantry.
- Azad MB, et al. CMAJ. 2017 Jul 17;189(28):E929-E939.
- Chia CW, et al. PLoS One. 2016 Nov 23;11(11):e0167241.
- Pase MP, et al. Stroke. 2017 May;48(5):1139-1146.
- Bian X, et al. PLoS One. 2017 Jun 8;12(6):e0178426.
- Suez J, et al. Gut Microbes. 2015; 6(2): 149–155.
- Kundu N, et al. Low-Calorie Sweeteners Alter Glucose Uptake and Promote Adipogenesis in Human Fat Biopsy-Derived Mesenchymal Stromal Cells (MSCs) in-Vitro and in Subjects’ Subcutaneous Fat. Presented at ENDO 2017. OR27-6.
- European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) 2017 Annual Meeting. September 14, 2017, Lisbon, Portugal. Abstract 193.
- Kassi E, et al. Endocrine Abstracts (2016) 41 EP545.
- Carrera-Lanestosa A, et al. J Med Food. 2017 Oct;20(10):933-943.