Reaching for that packet of Splenda or cracking open a diet soda might not be the healthy fix that you may think, according to new research presented at ENDO 2017, the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting.
That’s because artificial sweeteners seem to mess with your body's metabolism, the study suggests. And in doing so, it may even promote the accumulation of fat, especially in people who are already obese.
The study used a few different strategies to reach that conclusion. In the first, researchers tested the artificial sweetener sucralose on stem cells taken from human fat tissue, using a concentration similar to that of the blood of someone drinking four cans of diet soda per day. They discovered an increased activation of genes associated with fat production and inflammation.
A second experiment involved abdominal fat samples from eight people who regularly consumed low-cal sweeteners. The researchers saw evidence of increased transport of glucose into cells - meaning accumulation of more sugar in the blood - and overexpression of fat-producing genes, compared to samples from subjects who didn’t use the sweeteners.
Part of the reason may be that low-calorie sweeteners appear to increase “sweet taste receptors” in abdominal fat, and that allows glucose to enter the cells more readily, the researchers believe.
Basically, these receptors are looking for a sweet fix, and low-cal sweeteners - which are often several-fold sweeter than sugar - satisfy that need. Researchers noted that those who regularly consume artificial sweeteners had 2.5-fold higher sweet taste receptor overexpression than those who don’t eat the stuff.
As more glucose enters the cells as a result of these receptors, the body absorbs it into the bloodstream, raising blood sugar levels in the body. This process often leads to abdominal fat storage, too. Over time, that can mess with your metabolism, leading to greater fat production.
Still, this study is just one of many on the topic of artificial sweeteners and weight gain - there is still controversy over the bottom line on whether artificial sweeteners are helpful or hurtful.