Why Do Diet Sodas Make You Fat?

Is Mixing Diet Sodas With Carbs Bad For You?

Why Do Sodas Cause Obesity?Many people, and many doctors, believe that diet sodas and artificially sweetened foods are a healthy choice. After all:

  • Cutting calories by drinking diet sodas and eating artificially sweetened foods should help you lose weight.
  • If sugar is the problem for diabetics, diet sodas and artificially sweetened foods should be a healthier choice.

On the surface, these ideas appear to be self-evident. They seem to be “no-brainers”. The truth, however, is more complicated.

When studies are tightly controlled by dietitians so that the people consuming diet sodas don’t add any extra calories to their diet, the results are exactly as expected. People consuming diet sodas lose weight compared to people drinking regular sodas.

However, as I have described in an earlier issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, the results are different in the real world where you don’t have a dietitian looking over your shoulder. In those studies, diet sodas are just as likely to cause weight gain as regular sodas.

As Barry Popkin, a colleague at the University of North Carolina, put it” “The problem is that we [Americans] are using diet sodas to wash down our Big Macs and fries.” In short, people drinking diet sodas tend to increase their caloric intake by adding other foods to their diet. Even worse, the added foods aren’t usually fruits and vegetables. They are highly processed junk foods.

Why is that? The short answer is that nobody knows (more about that later). However, a recent study (JR Dalenberg et al, Cell Metabolism, 31: 493-502, 2020) suggests an unexpected mechanism for the weight gain associated with diet soda consumption. Let’s look at that study.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe study recruited 45 healthy young adults (ages 20-45) who habitually consumed less than 3 diet sodas a month. They were randomly assigned to three groups. The participants in each group came into the testing facility seven times over a span of 2 weeks. Each time they were given 12 ounces of one of three equally sweet tasting beverages in a randomized, double-blind fashion.

  • Group 1 received a sucralose-sweetened drink contained 0.06 grams of sucralose (equivalent to two packets of Splenda).
  • Group 2 received a sugar-sweetened drink contained 7 teaspoons of sucrose (table sugar).
  • Group 3 received a combo drink contained 0.06 grams of sucralose plus 7 teaspoons of maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a water-soluble carbohydrate that does not have a sweet taste.

o   Maltodextrin was used because Splenda and most other commercial sucralose products contain it along with sucralose. You need something to fill up those little sucralose-containing packets.

o   This drink was included as a control. The expectation was that it would give the same results as the sucralose-sweetened drink.

Three measurements were performed prior to and following the 2-week testing period:

  • An oral glucose tolerance test in which participants drink a beverage containing a fixed amount of glucose. Then their blood sugar and blood insulin levels are measured over the next two hours.

o   This is a measure of how well they were able to control their blood sugar levels.

  • A test in which they were given samples that had either a sweet, sour, salty, or savory taste. Then:

o   They were asked to identify each taste and report how strong the taste was.

o   MRI scans of their brains were performed to determine how strongly their brains responded to each of the tastes.

Is Mixing Diet Soda With Carbs Bad For You?

The results were surprising. The first surprise came when the investigators unblinded the results of the oral glucose tolerance test:

  • Blood sugar and blood insulin responses were unaffected by the 2-week exposure to sugar-sweetened drinks.

o   This was expected.

  • Blood sugar and blood insulin were relatively unaffected by the 2-week exposure to sucralose-sweetened drinks. If anything, the control of blood sugar levels was slightly improved at the end of two weeks.

o   This was a disappointment for the investigators. One of the prevailing theories is that artificially sweetened beverages alter the blood sugar response. The investigators found no evidence for that idea.

  • Following the 2-week exposure to the combo drinks (sucralose plus maltodextrin), blood sugar levels were unaffected, but blood insulin levels were increased. This implies that more insulin was required to control blood sugar levels. In other words, these participants had developed insulin resistance.

o   This result was unexpected. Remember the investigators had included this drink as a control.

o   The investigators pointed out that the insulin resistance associated with the sucralose-maltodextrin combo could increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity.

  • Because of this unexpected result, the investigators did a follow-up study in which participants were given a maltodextrin-only drink using the same study protocol. The oral glucose tolerance test was unchanged by the 2-week exposure to maltodextrin-only drinks.

When the investigators conducted taste tests, the ability of participants to taste all four flavors was unchanged by a 2-week exposure to any of the drinks.

However, when the investigators did MRI scans to measure the brain’s response to these flavors:

  • A two-week exposure to the sucralose plus maltodextrin drinks reduced the brain’s response to sweet but not to any of the other flavors.

o   In other words, the subjects could still taste sweet flavors, but their brains were not responding to the sweet taste. Since sweetness activates pleasure centers in the brain this could lead to an increased appetite for sweet-tasting foods.

o   This might explain the weight gain that has been observed in many previous studies of diet sodas.

  • Two-week exposures to the other drinks had no effect on the brain’s response to any of the flavors. Once again, this effect was only seen in the sucralose-maltodextrin combination.

The investigators concluded:

  • “Consumption of sucralose combined with carbohydrates impairs insulin sensitivity…and…neural responses to sugar.
  • Insulin sensitivity is not altered by sucralose or carbohydrate consumption alone.
  • The results suggest that consumption of sucralose in the presence of a carbohydrate dysregulates gut-brain regulation of glucose metabolism.”

The investigators pointed out that this could have several adverse consequences. Again, in the words of the authors:

“Similar exposure combinations (artificial sweeteners plus carbohydrates) almost certainly occur in free-living humans, especially if one considers the consumption of a diet drink along with a meal. This raises the possibility that the combination effect may be a major contributor to the rise in incidence of type 2 diabetes and obesity. If so, addition of artificial sweeteners to increase the sweetness of carbohydrate-containing food and beverages should be discouraged and consumption of diet drinks with meals should be counseled against.”

Why Do Diet Sodas Make You Fat?

As I mentioned at the start of this article, there are a lot of hypotheses as to why diet sodas make us fat. These hypotheses break down into two classifications: psychological and physiological.

The psychological hypothesis is easiest to explain. Essentially, it goes like this: We feel virtuous for choosing a zero-calorie sweetener, so we allow ourselves to eat more of our favorite foods. It is unlikely that this hypothesis holds for all diet soda drinkers. However, it is also hard to exclude it as at least part of the explanation for the food overconsumption associated with diet soda use.

There are multiple physiological hypotheses. Most of them are complicated, but here are simplified explanations of the three most popular hypotheses:

  • The sweet taste of artificial sweeteners tricks the brain into triggering insulin release by the pancreas. This causes blood sugar levels to plummet, which increases appetite.
  • The sweet taste of artificial sweeteners is not appropriately recognized by the brain. This diminishes release of hormones that suppress appetite.
  • Artificial sweeteners interfere with insulin signaling pathways, which leads to insulin resistance.

There is some evidence for and against each of these hypotheses.

However, this study introduces a new physiological hypothesis – namely that it is the combination of artificial sweeteners and carbohydrates that results in a dysregulation of the normal mechanisms controlling appetite and blood sugar.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Diet Soda DangersLet’s start with the obvious. This is just a hypothesis.

  • This was a very small study. Until it is confirmed by other, larger studies, we don’t know whether it is true.
  • This study only tested sucralose. We don’t know whether this applies to other artificial sweeteners.
  • The study only tested maltodextrin in combination with sucralose. We don’t know whether it applies to other carbohydrates.

Therefore, in discussing how this study applies to you, let’s consider two possibilities – if it is true, and if it is false.

If this hypothesis is true, it is concerning because:

  • We often consume diet sodas with meals. If, for example, we take the earlier example of a diet soda with a Big Mac and fries, both the hamburger bun and the fries are high carbohydrate foods.

 

  • Sucralose and other artificial sweeteners are used in low calorie versions of many carbohydrate rich processed foods.

If this hypothesis is false, it does not change the underlying association of diet soda consumption with weight gain and type 2 diabetes. It is merely an attempt to explain that association. We should still try to eliminate diet sodas and reduce our consumption of artificially sweetened, low calorie foods.

My recommendation is to substitute water and other unsweetened beverages for the diet drinks or sugar sweetened beverages you are currently consuming. If you crave the fizz of sodas, drink carbonated water. If you need more taste, try herbal teas or infuse water with slices of lemon, lime, or your favorite fruit. If you buy commercial brands of flavored water, check the labels carefully. They may contain sugars or artificial sweeteners. Those you want to avoid.

The Bottom Line

Many studies have called into question the assumption that diet sodas and diet foods help us lose weight. In fact, most of these studies show that diet soda consumption is associated with weight gain rather than weight loss.

There are many hypotheses to explain this association, but none of them have been proven at present.

This study introduces a new hypothesis – namely that the combination of artificial sweeteners and carbohydrates results in a dysregulation of the normal mechanisms controlling appetite and blood sugar. In particular, this study suggested that combining sucralose with carbohydrates caused insulin resistance and reduce the ability of the brain to respond appropriately to sweet tastes.

The authors concluded: “Similar exposure combinations (artificial sweeteners plus carbohydrates) almost certainly occur in free-living humans, especially if one considers the consumption of a diet drink along with a meal. This raises the possibility that the combination effect may be a major contributor to the rise in incidence of type 2 diabetes and obesity. If so, addition of artificial sweeteners to increase the sweetness of carbohydrate-containing food and beverages should be discouraged and consumption of diet drinks with meals should be counseled against.”

If this hypothesis is true, it is concerning because:

  • We often consume diet sodas with meals. If, for example, we take the example of a diet soda with a Big Mac and fries, both the hamburger bun and the fries are high carbohydrate foods.
  • Artificial sweeteners are used in low calorie versions of many carbohydrate rich processed foods.

If this hypothesis is false, it does not change the underlying association of diet soda consumption with weight gain and type 2 diabetes. It is merely an attempt to explain that association. We should still try to eliminate diet sodas and reduce our consumption of artificially sweetened, low calorie foods.

My recommendation is to substitute water and other unsweetened beverages for the diet drinks or sugar sweetened beverages you are currently consuming. If you crave the fizz of sodas, drink carbonated water. If you need more taste, try herbal teas or infuse water with slices of lemon, lime, or your favorite fruit. If you buy commercial brands of flavored water, check the labels carefully. They may contain sugars or artificial sweeteners. Those you want to avoid.

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.

Do Artificial Sweeteners Help You Lose Weight?

Sucralose and Weight Loss

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Do artificial sweeteners help you lose weight?

It’s a puzzle. We are drinking more artificially sweetened foods and sodas than ever. We’ve been told that those artificially sweeteners will help us cut calories and keep us slender. Yet, surprisingly, we’re fatter than ever.

Let me put some numbers to that statement. The number of people consuming calorie free sodas in the US alone increased from 70 million to 260 million between 1987 and 2000. During that same time period, the percentage of overweight adults in this country increased from 52% to 66%; the percentage of obese adults increased from 20% to 32%; and the percentage of obese children increased from 10% to 17%. Clearly something isn’t working.

And, it may just be the artificial sweeteners that aren’t working. A study published in 2007 (R. Dingra et al, Circulation, 116: 480-484, 2007 ) showed that people consuming regular (sugar containing) sodas were 48% more likely to become obese over a four-year period than people who primarily drank water. That wasn’t surprising. The surprising finding from this study was that people who consumed diet sodas were just as likely to become obese as those drinking regular sodas.

Now you may be saying: “Wait a minute. I thought I read that consuming diet sodas actually helps people lose weight.” The answer is that in those studies dietitians rigorously controlled the caloric intake from other foods so that the only caloric difference was between the diet sodas and the regular sodas. Under those conditions the results are fairly obvious. Fewer calories from sodas = weight loss. But those aren’t the results that you see in free living populations where you don’t have a dietitian peering over your shoulder. In those populations people consuming diet sodas tend to take in the same number of total calories overall and gain just as much weight as people drinking regular sodas.

 

Do Artificial Sweeteners Prevent Weight Loss?

 

Obviously, people consuming diet sodas which contain artificial sweeteners must compensate by consuming extra calories from other foods. But, why are they consuming those extra calories? Some experts hypothesize that the answer is physiological. The sweet taste of the diet sodas triggers the release of insulin, which drives down blood sugar levels and makes people hungrier. Other experts hypothesize that the answer is psychological. People simply feel virtuous for consuming the diet sodas and feel they can now splurge somewhere else.

do artificial sweeteners help you lose weightAnimal studies have suggested that the cause may actually be physiological. Those studies have shown that there are “sweetness receptors” in the intestine that respond to the sweetness of sugars and trigger an increase in the level of proteins that transport sugars from the intestine into the bloodstream. That makes great sense from an evolutionary point of view. If we’re eating a low carbohydrate diet we really don’t want to waste a lot of energy producing proteins that transport sugars into our bloodstream. However, whenever we eat foods high in carbohydrates we don’t want to waste that carbohydrate. So, our intestine rapidly breaks the carbohydrates down to simple sugars, and our body responds by increasing our ability to transport those simple sugars into the bloodstream.

This can lead to blood sugar swings and increased food cravings. You’ve heard about the blood sugar swings associated with meals high in simple sugars. When sugars enter the bloodstream very rapidly, blood sugar levels increase, which causes insulin to be secreted. The insulin drives down blood sugar levels, leading to hypoglycemia and increased hunger. That’s a highly simplified scenario, but you get the general idea.

Now the interesting thing is that animal studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners are also recognized by the intestinal “sweetness receptors”. So artificial sweeteners also trigger an increase in the intestinal sugar transporters and prime the body so that blood sugar swings are more likely to occur whenever we eat carbohydrates.

While the results from animal studies have been very consistent with this model, the results from human clinical studies have been mixed. Some studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners do increase the likelihood of blood sugar swings, while other studies have reported that artificial sweeteners have no effect on blood glucose and insulin levels.

With this in mind, do artificial sweeteners help you lose weight?  Let’s continue to investigate.

 

Do Artificial Sweeteners Help You Lose Weight?

 

A recent study (M.Y. Pepinoet al, Diabetes Care, 36: 2530-2535, 2013 ) provides a possible explanation for these conflicting results. This study was similar to many of the previous studies in that obese adults were given either sucralose (an artificial sweetener) or water 10 min before being given a fixed amount of glucose, and blood sugar and insulin levels were followed over the next five hours. What made this study unique was that overweight participants were selected who did not normally consume artificially sweetened beverages or foods (Those people are hard to find in the overweight US population).

artificial sweetenersAnd the results were fairly clear-cut. The participants consuming sucralose prior to the glucose load had a 20% greater increase in blood sugar levels, a 20% greater increase in the amount of insulin produced, and significantly lower blood sugar levels three hours after the glucose load than participants consuming water prior to the glucose load. In the words of the authors: “These data suggest that sucralose ingestion is not physiologically inert but affects the glycemic [blood sugar] response to oral glucose load and potentiates glucose stimulated insulin secretion in obese people.” Basically, what they are saying is that sucralose primes their bodies so that they are more likely to experience blood sugar swings when they subsequently consume carbohydrates. [And that can lead to food cravings and weight gain.]

The authors hypothesized that some previous studies had not found an effect of artificial sweeteners on blood sugar and insulin levels because most of the people in those studies were already consuming artificially sweetened beverages on a regular basis and their intestinal sugar transport proteins were already maximally stimulated. Basically, what they are saying is that when someone is regularly consuming artificial sweeteners the damage has already been done (sugar transport is already maximal), and a single dose of an artificial sweetener will not have any significant additional effect.

So, do artificial sweeteners help you lose weight?  I think you know.

 

The Bottom Line

 

It has become clear in recent years that artificially-sweetened diet sodas and diet foods are not effective at preventing weight gain, and may, in fact, contribute to weight gain. There is also increasing evidence that artificially-sweetened diet sodas may be harmful to our health. In fact, an international consortium of obesity experts recently concluded: “The absence of evidence to support the role of artificially sweetened beverages in preventing weight gain and the lack of studies on their long-term effects on health strengthen the position that artificially-sweetened beverages should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet.”

 

However, the reason why diet sodas appear to promote obesity rather than prevent it has remained elusive.

  • A recent study suggests that sucralose (and presumably other artificial sweeteners) triggers a complex serious of metabolic responses that lead to increased appetite and food cravings.
  • However, this is just one small study. Many more studies will be required before we understand why artificial sweeteners promote obesity, rather than prevent it.
  • However, it is clear that artificial sweeteners are not the simple, magical solutions for weight control that food manufacturers and advertisers would have you believe.
    • There are unresolved safety issues with all the artificial sweeteners – but that’s another subject for another day.
    • There is no convincing evidence that artificial sweeteners actually help you lose weight unless you are very carefully controlling the calories from all the other foods you’re eating – and if you’re doing that successfully, you probably don’t need artificial sweeteners in the first place.
    • There is some evidence that artificial sweeteners may actually cause blood sugar swings and make you hungrier, thus making it harder – not easier – to control your weight.
  • The best solution to weight control is always true lifestyle change that includes exercise, healthy foods, and reduced caloric intake and is not based on gimmicks or artificial ingredients.

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.

Which Foods Lower Blood Sugar?

Can You Believe The “Experts”?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

which foods lower blood sugarYour blood sugar levels have been creeping up. Your doctor has been bugging you to do something about it – even threatening to put you on medications if you don’t get your blood sugar under control. So, which foods lower blood sugar?

Now it’s the first of the year, and you’ve vowed to do something about it. You have vowed to make better food choices. That should be easy. There is lots of great advice about foods that lower blood sugar on the internet. For example, in a recent search, I found articles proclaiming “9 foods that lower blood sugar”, “7 foods that control blood sugar”, and “12 power foods to beat diabetes”.

But, are those foods the right ones for you? What if we are remarkably different in our blood sugar responses to the same food? This is just what a recent study suggests.

How Was The Study Designed?

A group of scientists in Isreal set out to test the hypothesis that people eating identical meals might have a high variability in their post-meal blood glucose response (Zeevi et al, Cell, 163, 1079-1094, 2015).

measure glucoseThe investigators enrolled 800 subjects ages 18-70 into their study. None of the individuals had diabetes. However, 54% of them were overweight (BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2) and 22% of them were obese (BMI ≥ 30 kg/m2). Thus, their subject population was typical of the adult population of almost every Western, industrialized country.

All 800 subjects were followed for one week during which time:

  • They were connected to a continuous glucose monitor, which measured their blood glucose levels every 5 seconds.
  • They were given a Smartphone app and instructed to log their food intake, exercise, and sleep in real time.
  • They were told to follow their normal daily routine and dietary habits except for the first meal of every day, which consisted of five different types of standardized “meals” (glucose, fructose, bread, bread with butter, bread with chocolate), all providing 50 gm of available carbohydrate.

The glucose monitor recorded blood sugar responses for 2 hours following each meal. From that information, the investigators calculated a PPGR (post-prandial glycemic response), which I will mercifully refer to as “blood sugar response”, for every meal eaten by every subject throughout the week.

The standardized “meals” eaten at the beginning of the day were used to validate the study. For example:

  • Two of the standardized meals were given to each subject twice during the study separated by at least one day.
    • There was very little variability in blood sugar response when the same standardized meal was given to the same subject on different days.
    • However, there was a significant amount of variability in blood sugar response when the same standardized meal was given to different subjects.
  • The average blood sugar response to each of the standardized meals was very similar to literature values from previous studies (Most previous studies have reported only average blood sugar responses, not individual variability).

In short, the results from the standardized “meals” validated both the reliability and reproducibility of the data.

Finally, to eliminate as many confounding variables as possible, the investigators compared blood sugar response only for those meals in which a single food was the major component of the meal and that food provided 20-40 gm of carbohydrate.

Here is where things got really interesting!

Which Foods Lower Blood Sugar?

breadThis study showed that there is tremendous individual variability in the blood sugar response to any given food. For example, individual blood sugar responses varied by:

  • 4-fold for sugar-sweetened soft drinks, grapes and apples.
  • 5-fold for rice.
  • 6-fold for bread and potatoes.
  • 7-fold for ice cream and dates.

Put another way:

  • Some people had almost no blood sugar response to cookies, but a very high blood sugar response to a banana.
  • Other people had almost no blood sugar response to bananas, but a very high blood sugar response to cookies.

That is a pretty striking result. Which foods lower blood sugar? This study suggests that some people trying to control their blood sugar can eat bananas, while others should avoid them. It might even mean that some people trying to control blood sugar can eat cookies. I know that is what many people would like to hear, but I’m not ready to make that recommendation.

Why Is There So Much Individuality in Blood Sugar Response?

good food choicesYou are probably wondering why there is such variability in blood sugar response to the same foods. There are several factors that influence individual blood sugar response. For example,

  • Overweight and obesity (Both tend to increase blood sugar response).
  • Dietary habits (Meats, particularly fatty meats, processed grains, and simple sugars tend to increase blood sugar response to a given amount of carbohydrate. Unprocessed grains, fresh fruits & vegetables tend to decrease blood sugar response to a given amount of carbohydrate).
  • What we eat with a given meal (Protein, fiber, and fat in a meal can decrease blood sugar response to the carbohydrate in that meal).
  • Physical activity (Increased muscle mass decreases blood sugar response to a given amount of carbohydrate).
  • The bacteria in our intestine (This may be a chicken-and egg thing. The bacteria in our intestine are influenced by our dietary habits.)
  • Genetics.
  • Things we don’t yet know about.

The good news is that we can actually control some of these variables. The ones over which we have the most control are weight, dietary habits, what we eat along with the carbohydrates in our meals, and physical activity.

What Does This Mean For You?

blood sugarThe authors concluded that “universal dietary recommendations [for lowering blood sugar levels] may have limited utility.”  That is because dietary recommendations are based on average responses and none of us are average. As the saying goes “We are all wonderfully [and differently] made”.

So, when you read about diets and foods that will help you keep your blood sugar levels under control, take those recommendations with a grain of…sugar. They are a good starting place, but you need to listen to your body, and eat the foods that work best for you.  So, which foods lower blood sugar?  It is different for different people, but there are some variables you can control.

Don’t get carried away, however. I’m pretty sure Twinkies washed down with a soft drink are bad for just about everyone.

More importantly, control the variables you can – weight, dietary habits, foods you eat along with carbohydrates, and physical activity. If you control those four variables, you will be well on your way to ideal blood sugar control.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study has shown that there is tremendous variability in blood sugar response to identical meals from one individual to the next.
  • The authors of the study concluded that “universal dietary recommendations [for lowering blood sugar levels] may have limited utility.” That is because dietary recommendations are based on average responses, and none of us are average.
  • So, when you read about diets and foods that will help you keep your blood sugar levels under control, take those recommendations with a grain of…sugar. They are a good starting place, but you need to listen to your body, and eat the foods that work best for you.
  • There are variables influencing our blood sugar response that we cannot control, such as genetics. However, there are some very important variables that we can control. For example, we can improve our blood sugar response by:
    • Attaining and maintaining ideal weight. Losing as little as 5-10 pounds can result in a significant improvement.

 

    • Eating a diet that emphasizes fresh fruits & vegetables, nuts, and whole grains and minimizes meats, especially fatty meats, processed grains, and simple sugars. This may act by influencing the bacteria that populate our intestine.

 

    • Consuming carbohydrates along with protein, fiber-rich foods, and even some fat in the same meal.

 

    • Increasing physical activity, especially activity that increases lean muscle mass.

 

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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