Think artificial sweeteners can help you lose weight? Not really.

Artificial sweeteners are a class of natural or synthetic compounds that are capable of interacting with sweet sensors on your tongue causing the sensing of sweet taste.  These compounds are used extensively as sugar substitutes in food and beverages to reduce the caloric content in these products and have long been promoted as aids to weight loss and diabetes prevention.  However, for years, data seems to suggest that non-caloric artificial sweeteners do not seem to assist in weight loss.  On the contrary, some studies actually suggest that artificial sweeteners may even have an opposite effect.

A study published on Nature magazine reported that artificial sweeteners, even though they do not contain sugar, nonetheless have a direct effect on the body’s ability to utilize glucose.   The researchers report that artificial sweeteners could actually hasten the development of glucose intolerance and metabolic disease, and they do so in a surprising way: by changing the composition and function of the gut microbiota — the substantial population of bacteria residing in our intestines.

In the study, the scientists gave mice water laced with the three most commonly used artificial sweeteners, in amounts equivalent to those permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These mice developed glucose intolerance, as compared to mice that drank water, or even sugar water. Repeating the experiment with different types of mice and different doses of the artificial sweeteners produced the same results — these substances were somehow inducing glucose intolerance.

Knowing artificial sweeteners are not absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract but simply pass through while encountering trillions of the bacteria in the gut microbiota, the researchers wondered if the phenomenon is somehow caused by the artificial sweeteners’ effect on the gut microbiota.  To test the hyphothesis, the researchers treated mice with antibiotics to eradicate many of their gut bacteria; this resulted in a full reversal of the artificial sweeteners’ effects on glucose metabolism. Next, they transferred the microbiota from mice that consumed artificial sweeteners to germ-free mice — resulting in a complete transmission of the glucose intolerance into the recipient mice. This, in itself, was conclusive proof that changes to the gut bacteria are directly responsible for the harmful effects to their host’s metabolism. The group even found that incubating the microbiota outside the body, together with artificial sweeteners, was sufficient to induce glucose intolerance in the germ-free mice.

A detailed characterization of the microbiota in these mice revealed profound changes to their bacterial populations, including new microbial functions that are known to increase tendency of obesity, diabetes, and related metabolic syndrome in both mice and humans. Does the human microbiome function in the same way?   The researchers looked at data collected from their Personalized Nutrition Project (www.personalnutrition.org), the largest human trial to date to look at the connection between nutrition and microbiota. Here, they uncovered a significant association between self-reported consumption of artificial sweeteners, personal configurations of gut bacteria, and the propensity for glucose intolerance.

They next conducted a controlled experiment, asking a group of volunteers who did not generally eat or drink artificially sweetened foods to consume them for a week, and then undergo tests of their glucose levels and gut microbiota compositions. The findings showed that many of the volunteers had begun to develop glucose intolerance after just one week of artificial sweetener consumption.  Similar to the mice study, the researchers discovered gut bacteria that induced glucose intolerance when exposed to the sweeteners from the composition of volunteers’ gut microbiota.

This study highlighted a fundamental irony on the diet coke consumption.  Consumers who drink diet coke are hoping for less calories and therefore less weight gain.  The observation that the artificial sweetener in the diet coke negatively impacts the gut microbiota population and in fact causes glucose intolerance and weight again might be a hard truth to swallow.

Thanks for reading.

Journal Reference: Jotham Suez, Tal Korem, David Zeevi, Gili Zilberman-Schapira, Christoph A. Thaiss, Ori Maza, David Israeli, Niv Zmora, Shlomit Gilad, Adina Weinberger, Yael Kuperman, Alon Harmelin, Ilana Kolodkin-Gal, Hagit Shapiro, Zamir Halpern, Eran Segal, Eran Elinav. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/nature13793 Source: Informed Nutrition

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