How Bad Are Artificial Sweeteners?

What’s the latest word on artificial sweeteners? I’ve heard they don’t help you lose weight and may have negative effects on health overall?

– August 22, 2017

We have no scientific evidence that consuming artificially sweetened foods and beverages leads to weight loss. In fact, the latest investigation on the subject found no positive effect on weight loss, and actually linked intake of these sweeteners with higher risks of gaining weight, obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.

This new evidence comes from Canada’s University of Manitoba, where researchers reviewed 37 studies that included data on more than 406,000 people followed for an average of 10 years. Seven of these were randomized trials that included 1,003 participants, most of whom were in weight loss programs. In none of them was there any consistent impact of artificial sweeteners on body mass index. The 30 observational studies reviewed included 405,907 participants and found an association between use of artificial sweeteners and a slight increase in body mass index. The researchers also reported a 14 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes among those who consumed the most artificial sweeteners compared to those who consumed the least.

Findings from these 30 studies also indicated a 32 percent increased risk of cardiovascular problems for those whose consumption of artificial sweeteners was highest. Bear in mind, observational studies cannot prove cause and effect – we can’t be sure that artificial sweeteners were responsible for the increased risk of disease and weight gain seen. However, we do have evidence from earlier research that supports some of the new findings. Here’s a rundown:

  • Effect on weight: Epidemiologists at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio found a 70 percent greater increase in waist circumference among people who drank diet soda compared to those who didn’t.
  • Diabetes: In a U.S. study, consuming diet drinks daily was linked to a 36 percent greater risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Also, research from Israel revealed a “significant association” between consumption of artificial sweeteners, configurations of gut bacteria, and the propensity for glucose intolerance, which often precedes diabetes.
  • Heart attack and stroke risk: A study from Columbia University and the University of Miami found a 43 percent increased risk of heart attack and stroke among individuals who drank a daily diet soda compared to those who didn’t consume diet sodas daily or drank regular sodas.
  • Kidney trouble: A Harvard study suggested that drinking 2 or more diet sodas daily is associated with a decline in kidney function in women.
  • Premature birth: Danish researchers have reported that the risk of giving birth prematurely increased by 38 percent among women who drank diet soda daily and by 78 percent among those who drank 4 or more diet sodas per day.

Since artificially sweetened foods and drinks haven’t made a dent in our national obesity epidemic and seem to be doing more harm than good, I believe you’re better off avoiding them.

Andrew Weil, M.D


Ryan Zarychanski and Meghan Azad et al, “Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies.” Canadian Medical Association Journal, July 17, 2017; 189 (28): E929 DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.161390

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