Artificial Sweeteners And Diabetes

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Health Current Events, Obesity

Another Myth Bites The Dust

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

artificial sweeteners and diabetesArtificial sweeteners and diabetes; is there a relationship?

Once again, artificial sweeteners have come up empty. They were supposed to help you lose weight, but several recent clinical studies have suggested that artificially sweetened beverages are just as likely to lead to weight gain as sugar sweetened beverages, see  Do Diet Sodas Make You Fat.

What about type 2 diabetes? There have been several clinical trials that have suggested that excess consumption of sugar sweetened beverages may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes (For example, Basu et al, Am J Pub Health, 103: 2071-2077, 2013; Malik et al, Diabetes Care, 33: 2477-2483, 2010).

As a consequence if you are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, you’ve probably been advised by your doctor or dietitian to switch from sugar sweetened beverages to artificially sweetened beverages or natural fruit juices. But, does that really work? Maybe not.

In fact, some studies have suggested that excess consumption of artificially sweetened beverages or fruit juice may be just as likely to lead to type 2 diabetes as consuming sugar sweetened beverages (For example, Greenwood et al, Br J Nutr, 112: 725-734, 2014; Xi et al, PloS One, 9:e93471, 2014).

A Systematic Study Of Beverage Consumption And Diabetes Risk

However, this has been a very controversial topic. The problem is that it is devilishly difficult to design studies that provide definitive answers to these important questions.

To start with there are problems with confounding factors. For example,

  • It is pretty well established that consumption of sugar sweetened beverages leads to obesity and obesity leads to type 2 diabetes, but many of the studies did not adjust the data for obesity.
  • In addition, many people who are overweight often switch to artificially sweetened beverages in the mistaken belief that they will help them lose weight. Once again, many of the published studies did not correct for that.

There are also problems with study design. For example, many of the studies did not directly compare sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages in the same population group. If the population groups are different enough between studies, it can be a little like trying to compare apples to oranges.

Because of these limitations an international team of experts designed a major systematic review and meta-analysis (Imamura et al, Br J Med, doi: 101136/bmj.h3576, 2015) of all reasonably well designed prospective studies that measured the effect of beverage consumption on the development of type 2 diabetes over time.

They evaluated the data from 17 studies that represented 38,253 people who developed type 2 diabetes over a period of at least two years. They used the most rigorous statistical analysis methods available, and they interpreted their results very cautiously.

In short, this was a major study. So, what did the study show?

Is There a Relationship Between Artificial Sweeteners And  Diabetes?

On face value, the data appeared to be fairly clear:

  • prevent diabetesAn additional one serving per day of a sugar-sweetened beverage increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 18%. When you correct for obesity, the increased risk is 13%. (Note: we are talking about an 8 ounce serving here, not a 32 ounce Big Gulp or 64 ounce Double Gulp).
  • An additional one serving per day of an artificially-sweetened beverage increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 25%. When you correct for obesity, the increased risk is 8%.
  • An additional one serving per day of fruit juice increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 5%. When you correct for obesity, the risk actually increases to 7%.

In short, if you want to decrease your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, none of these options is a particularly good choice.

How Were These Data Interpreted

Of course, the strength of any meta-analysis is limited by the quality of the studies that were included in the meta-analysis. It is the old GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) principle. The authors acknowledged that limitation and analyzed in great detail the quality of the individual studies included in their meta-analysis. Their conclusions were as follows:

  • garbage in garbage outThe quality of the data on sugar sweetened beverages was strong enough that they could conclude that “habitual consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is associated with a greater incidence of type 2 diabetes, independent of obesity”. In short, you want to stay away from sugar sweetened beverages. They can cause obesity AND they can cause type 2 diabetes.
  • They also said that “…artificially sweetened beverages and fruit juice also showed positive associations with incidence of type 2 diabetes”, but did not feel the existing data were strong enough to make a definitive conclusion. They felt that more studies are needed.
  • However, they did feel that the existing data were strong enough to conclude that “neither artificially sweetened beverages nor fruit juice are suitable alternatives to sugar sweetened beverages for the preventing of type 2 diabetes.” In short, consumption of artificially sweetened beverages and fruit juice may not cause type 2 diabetes, but they clearly don’t prevent it.

 

The Bottom Line

If you are overweight or otherwise at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, you have probably been advised to switch from sugar-sweetened beverages to either artificially sweetened beverages or fruit juices. A major study has just turned that advice on its head!

This study (Imamura et al, Br J Med, doi: 101136/bmj.h3576, 2015) was a systematic review and meta-analysis of 17 previously published clinical studies that measured the effect of beverage consumption on the development of type 2 diabetes over time. Based on a very careful analysis of the data from this meta-analysis the authors concluded:

  • The quality of the data on sugar sweetened beverages was strong enough that they could unequivocally state that “habitual consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is associated with a greater incidence of type 2 diabetes, independent of obesity”. In short, you want to stay away from sugar sweetened beverages. They can cause obesity AND they can cause type 2 diabetes.
  • They also said that “…artificially sweetened beverages and fruit juice also showed positive associations with incidence of type 2 diabetes”, but did not feel the existing data were strong enough to make a definitive conclusion. They felt that more studies are needed.
  • However, they did feel that the existing data were strong enough to conclude that “neither artificially sweetened beverages nor fruit juice are suitable alternatives to sugar sweetened beverages for the preventing of type 2 diabetes.” In short, consumption of artificially sweetened beverages and fruit juice may not cause type 2 diabetes, but they clearly don’t prevent it.

So what kind of beverages should you consume if you don’t want your beverage intake to contribute to type 2 diabetes?

  • Water is always the first choice.
  • Milk, protein shakes and similar beverages can also be an excellent choice as long as you take the calories into account. The protein content of those beverages generally slows the rate of sugar uptake. Look for products with a low glycemic index.
  • High intensity or long endurance exercise requires a lot of carbohydrate, so sugars in rehydration or recovery sports supplements are well tolerated. However, those same sports drinks would be a concern if used as part of a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Finally, tea, coffee, and non-caffeinated herbal teas are excellent choices as long as you learn to enjoy them without adding sugar or artificial sweeteners.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (4)

  • Leah

    |

    Thank you for this valuable information, Dr. Chaney.
    I use stevia to sweeten my drinks for lemonade, hot chocolate, etc. I am assuming that because it is a natural ingredient by a good company, that it is not included in the category of artificial sweeteners and would be a good choice for people who have high blood sugars issues. Do you have any thoughts on that?. Also, I was wondering if you thought that Agave nectar can be used as well to substitute for sugar, if used within reason. Thank you.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Leah,
      We are not really sure why artificial sweeteners in sodas are not particularly helpful for losing weight or causing diabetes. One theory is that the intense sweetness creates food cravings. If that is true, it really wouldn’t matter whether you sweetened your soda with artificial sweeteners, natural sugar, or a natural sweetener like stevia. It is much better to focus on foods. Sugars and natural sweeteners are much better tolerated in foods that have ample amounts of protein and fiber.
      The chemical composition of agave nectar and honey are not much different from sugar or high fructose corn syrup (see my video “The Truth About Sugar”). I have never used agave nectar personally, but my wife occasionally uses honey in cooking. It’s only advantage is that it has a stronger flavor so one tends to use a little less.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Joan

    |

    One must be VERY careful when choosing a Stevia product because many of them are filled with other ingredients you don’t want to ingest. Read the label before you choose your Stevia product.

    Thank you Dr. Chaney for this excellent explanation of what you and others have been saying for years!

    To your health!

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Joan,

      You are so right. I’ve seen products that advertise they use stevia, but also use artificial sweeteners. It’s always good advice to actually read the label.

      Steve

      Reply

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Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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