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Diet Optimization Weight Loss Strategies

What is the Healthiest Sugar Substitute?

Dr. Schulte, a clinical psychologist and weight management researcher, clears the confusion: what is the healthiest sugar substitute?

If you’ve ever wondered: “What is the healthiest sugar substitute?” … you’ve come to the right place to break down the science.

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The Science on Artificial Sweeteners

The most common artificial sweeteners are sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal), and saccharin (Sweet’N Low). Artificial sweeteners are 200-700 times sweeter than the taste of natural sugar (sucrose). They don’t have calories, but they contain numerous chemicals to produce the zero-calorie sweet taste.

There has been some research to suggest that substituting sugar-sweetened beverages (like regular soda) for diet beverages that contain artificial sweeteners (like diet soda) can help with weight management (e.g., Ebbeling et al., 2012). However, this may be due to the simple calorie reduction that occurs when people substitute sugary, caloric beverages for zero-calorie options rather than a property of the artificial sweetener that leads to weight loss.

Other studies have found that eating artificial sweeteners may disrupt biological processes (Sylvetsky et al., 2016). Think of it this way: your body tastes something that is intensely sweet and prepares to digest it by releasing hormones like insulin. BUT, the sugar your body biologically prepared for never comes! Pearlman et al. (2017) describe that this may lead to eating more calories to compensate and also sends your brain on a reward rollercoaster– expecting but then not getting a “sugar high,” which leads to increased cravings for sweets.

Interestingly, An (2016) surveyed over 22,000 people and found that the more diet beverages consumed, the more junk food people ate, and this was especially true for individuals with a higher body weight. It is unknown whether the diet beverages biologically motivated increased junk food consumption or if people were more likely to feel like they could eat more junk food because they opted for a diet beverage.

Overall, the research has been somewhat conflicting. The benefit of artificial sweeteners seems to come from replacing caloric foods and beverages with zero-calorie beverages. However, with some evidence that these artificial sweeteners can disrupt hunger and fullness cues or increase cravings for sweet foods, it may be worth looking for other options. 

The Science on Natural Sweeteners

The most common natural sweeteners are: stevia, erythritol, and monk fruit. These sweeteners are derived from natural sources like plants or fruits and are zero calories. Erythritol is actually 70% less sweet compared to sugar, whereas stevia and monk fruit are about 200 times sweeter than sugar.

So, are natural sweeteners better than artificial sweeteners?

From a health standpoint, possibly, because they contain fewer chemicals, but they have still been processed and refined to have a very high concentration of sweetness. In fact, Tey et al. (2016) observed that people increased the amount of food they ate after consuming a beverage with either artificial and natural sweeteners– the type of sweetener didn’t matter!

However, there has been much less research looking at the biological and metabolic changes that occur after people consume natural sweeteners, so it is unclear whether the sweeteners are leading to overeating or if people just feel they can eat more because they are having a zero-calorie drink.

What is the Healthiest Sugar Substitute?

Overall, the most evident benefit of sugar substitutes for weight management is when they are used to replace sugar-sweetened beverages– likely because this helps to create a calorie deficit!

However, the research is mixed about whether sugar substitutes lead to cravings and overeating by preparing your body to metabolize sugar without actually delivering it. Some preliminary evidence suggests that artificial and natural sweeteners both disrupt your biology, though much more research is needed!

Because there isn’t a clear scientific consensus about how sugar substitutes impact appetite, cravings, and weight loss, I suggest the three following strategies:

  1. If you use diet beverages as a replacement for sugar-sweetened drinks, consider choosing ones with natural sweeteners (like stevia, erythritol, and monk fruit), which at least have fewer chemicals than artificial sweeteners.
  2. Try to reduce the number of foods and beverages you consume that use sugar substitutes and instead eat more whole foods for sweetness (like fruit!) and drink fruit-infused water (check out this post about how to increase your water intake!).
  3.  For sweetening beverages or when baking, consider using small amounts of natural forms of sugar, such as raw honey or maple syrup.

Dr. Schulte’s Summary

If you find it helpful to use artificial or natural sweeteners to help reduce the calories of the beverages you drink or the foods you eat, continue to do what works best for you. Natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit may be a good choice for this purpose to help you steer clear of the chemicals in artificial sweeteners.

I strongly encourage you to pay attention to how you feel when you eat artificial or natural sweeteners — do you notice they increase your cravings? Do you feel like you can eat more food because you chose a diet beverage? These are the answers that will help you understand whether sugar substitutes may or may not be useful for your weight management journey. In the mean time, consider reducing your intake of “diet” beverages and use small quantities of natural sugars, like honey, when necessary.

Questions? Drop a comment below or send an email to erica@drericaschulte.com!

References

An, R. (2016). Beverage consumption in relation to discretionary food intake and diet quality among US adults, 2003 to 2012. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics116(1), 28-37.

Ebbeling CB, Feldman HA, Chomitz VR, Antonelli TA, Gortmaker SL, Osganian SK, et al. A randomized trial of sugar-sweetened beverages and adolescent body weight. N Engl J Med. 2012;367(15):1407–16.

Pearlman, M., Obert, J., & Casey, L. (2017). The association between artificial sweeteners and obesity. Current gastroenterology reports19(12), 64.

Sylvetsky, A.C., Brown, R.J., Blau, J.E. et al. Hormonal responses to non-nutritive sweeteners in water and diet soda. Nutr Metab (Lond) 13, 71 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12986-016-0129-3

Tey, S. L., Salleh, N. B., Henry, J., & Forde, C. G. (2017). Effects of aspartame-, monk fruit-, stevia-and sucrose-sweetened beverages on postprandial glucose, insulin and energy intake. International journal of obesity41(3), 450-457.

Disclaimer: all opinions are my own and are not affiliated with my employers. Please seek medical guidance before pursuing weight loss or making significant changes to the way you eat or your physical activity routine.

2 replies on “What is the Healthiest Sugar Substitute?”

I have a very sweet tooth and it’s causing more harm to my body,because I keep on gaining weight. I think I would try the natural sweeteners and try and limit the food intake. Most of the people on diet always struggles when in comes to cutting down on sugar and I think using natural sweeteners will help since they don’t have calories. Thank you very much.will try to substitute

I’m so glad you found this article helpful, Mimie! The natural sweeteners can be helpful for replacing sources of sugar in your diet. Just pay attention to see how they impact your cravings!

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