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

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, 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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