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Sweet Stuff: How Sugars and Sweeteners Affect Your Health

Many people try cutting back on calories by switching from sugar-sweetened to diet foods and drinks that contain low- or no-calorie sweeteners. These artificial sweeteners—also known as sugar substitutes—are many times sweeter than table sugar, so smaller amounts are needed to create the same level of sweetness.

People have debated the safety of artificial sweeteners for decades. To date, researchers have found no clear evidence that any artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems in humans.

But can they help with weight loss? Scientific evidence is mixed. Some studies suggest that diet drinks can help you drop pounds in the short term, but weight tends to creep back up over time. Rother and other NIH-funded researchers are now working to better understand the complex effects that artificial sweeteners can have on the human body.

Studies of rodents and small numbers of people suggest that artificial sweeteners can affect the healthful gut microbes that help us digest food. This in turn can alter the body’s ability to use glucose, which might then lead to weight gain. But until larger studies are done in people, the long-term impact of these sweeteners on gut microbes and weight remains uncertain.

“There’s much controversy about the health effects of artificial sweeteners and the differences between sugars and sweeteners,” says Dr. Ivan de Araujo of Yale University. “Some animal studies indicate that sweeteners can produce physiological effects. But depending on what kind of measurement is taken, including in humans, the outcomes may be conflicting.”

De Araujo and others have been studying the effects that sugars and low-calorie sweeteners might have on the brain. His animal studies found that sugar and sweeteners tap differently into the brain’s reward circuitry, with sugars having a more powerful and pleasurable effect.

“The part of the brain that mediates the ‘I can’t stop’ kinds of behaviors seems to be especially sensitive to sugars and largely insensitive to artificial sweeteners,” de Araujo says. “Our long-term goal is really to understand if sugars or caloric sweeteners drive persistent intake of food. If exposed to too much sugar, does the brain eventually change in ways that lead to excess consumption? That’s what we’d like to know.”

Some research suggests that the intensely sweet taste of artificial, low-calorie sweeteners can lead to a “sweet tooth,” or a preference for sweet things. This in turn might lead to overeating. But more studies are needed to confirm the relative effects of caloric vs. non-caloric sweeteners.

“In the long run, if you want to lose weight, you need to establish a healthy lifestyle that contains unprocessed foods, moderate calories, and more exercise,” Rother says.

When kids grow up eating a lot of sweet foods, they tend to develop a preference for sweets. But if you give them a variety of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables early in life, they’ll develop a liking for them too.

“It’s important for parents to expose children to a variety of tastes early on, but realize that it often takes several attempts to get a child to eat such foods,” says Bremer. “Don’t give up too soon.”

The key to good health is eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods and getting plenty of physical activity. Focus on nutrition-rich whole foods without added sugars. Get tips on healthy eating and weight control at http://win.niddk.nih.gov.

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