This Artificial Sweetener Can Literally Lead to Diabetes

Choosing calorie-free sodas and sugar-free diet foods may be doing your body more harm than good, according to science.

sugar packets in restaurantAHPhotosWPG/Shutterstock

Trying to lose weight? Think about steering clear of “diet” foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners like sucralose: Not only are you setting yourself up for failure—check out how diet soda can make you fat—but new research from George Washington University suggests you’re also putting yourself at risk for metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes and heart disease.

Metabolic syndrome is a scary cluster of conditions that include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and abdominal fat. Each condition is bad enough on its own, but when you have at least three of them, you’re looking at twice the risk of heart disease and three to five times the risk of diabetes. And if you’re already battling obesity, the risk is even higher, warns senior study author, Sabyasachi Sen, MD, an associate professor of medicine at George Washington University and author of the research (which was presented at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society).

Dr. Sen’s report was the culmination of several studies he and colleagues conducted, which included:

  • Stem cell research: These demonstrated that artificial sweeteners promote fat accumulation within cells, probably as a result of increased activity of genes called “glucose transporters;” the more artificial sweetener the cells were exposed to, the more fat they accumulated.
  • Human fat samples: They collected samples from 18 regular sucralose users, 14 of whom were obese. The researchers noted that sucralose stimulated sugar consumption by the fat cells while encouraging fat-producing genes—an effect that was much more pronounced in the obese volunteers. This confirmed earlier findings that the artificial sweetener promotes diabetic risk factors: “We have much more confidence that low-calorie sweeteners are causing metabolic dysfunction,” Dr. Sen said in a press release.

In an interview with MedPage Today, Dr. Sen expressed concern that artificial sweeteners are “promoted for use in weight loss,” when their negative effects are markedly worse in those who actually need to lose weight. Currently, he’s researching the metabolic effects of other types of artificial sweeteners—beyond sucralose. That said, the solution is not to go back to consuming sugar, Dr. Sen advised: He hopes health-care providers will steer patients away from both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages. Learn more about the best and worst drinks for diabetics.

Think your sweet tooth might be out of control? Watch for these signs, and follow this advice from dietitians on breaking your addiction to sweets.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.