Artificial Sweeteners vs. Sugar: The Battle for Wellness and Weight Loss
There is a lot of misinformation based on puffy science and debate in the health and wellness space regarding artificial sweeteners vs sugar. Some people swear by the benefits of artificial sweeteners, while others say that sugar is the only way to go. So, which one is better for your wellness and weight loss? Let's take a closer look at the convoluted claims and see if we can't make some decisions to support your goals:
Sugar spikes your insulin leading to weight gain
Sugar does spike your insulin, and insulin resistance does cause weight gain. But eliminating sugar--or even carbs altogether--does not (by itself) lead to weight loss. In the short term, sugar leads to weight gain because it is calorically dense. This means that you get a little bit of sugar with a lotta bit of calories. With sugar, particularly when baked with fats and salts, you can take in a lot more calories in a small amount of time, thwarting your weight loss efforts.
We recommend sticking with foods that are high in fiber (like apples!) and/or foods that have a lower glycemic index (like healthy fats, proteins, and vegetables) because, unlike pure sugars, they are metabolized slower and have been proven to increase satifaction and fullness, which supports weight loss efforts because they help you eat less.
Artificial sweeteners spike your insulin leading to weight gain
Okay, most artificial sweeteners do cause a lift in insulin levels, with the exception of stevia (which, actually, is natural and not artificial, so there ya go). But unless you are diabetic or pre-diabetic, suffering from insulin resistance, a small raise in insulin levels does not lead to weight gain. (And if you are diabetic or pre-diabetic, you should consult with your doctor on the safest, most effective way to lose weight.)
The trouble with this logic is that it's false: insulin causes weight gain; therefore, anything that spikes insulin causes weight gain. Mmm...no.
Let's clear this up: insulin causes weight gain
In studies where diabetic patients are self-administering shots of insulin to manage their insulin resistance, they gain weight. So insulin does cause weight gain. But in healthy individuals, insulin is an important and normal part of utilizing incoming glucose for fuel. And when you're using that incoming glucose for fuel, like by doing aerobic exercise (gotta have that glucose!), it does not get stored on your body as fat, which makes logical sense because if it did, Michael Phelps would look like the Michelin Man.
That incoming glucose will, however, get stored as fat if you are consuming more calories than your body can burn. And how many calories your body burns is a combination of what your body metabolizes at rest (ever heard the statistic, "10 pounds of muscle would burn 50 calories in a day spent at rest"?) and your activity (ya know, like exercise or typing on your keyboard).
Bottom line, if you are consuming more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. But it's not from the insulin, my friends. It's from the high caloric/low fullness foods eaten in excess (like donuts, pizza, and cupcakes). And that means that foods and drinks that offer a similar reward physiologically but are calorically less dense will help you lose weight.
Put another way, artificial sweeteners as a substitute for calorically dense sugar allows people to satisfy their cravings while still maintaining a caloric deficit. And for a lot of people, that is a huge step in the right direction. Losing weight doesn't have to mean throwing the baby out with the bath water. Eating and drinking can still be enjoyable as you work towards your goals.
Sugar is natural
Nope. I mean, I see what they're saying here, but while sugar may come from a plant, but table sugar is highly processed and adds no value to your diet beyond making food more palatable. Which, from my perspective, is a good enough reason to use sugar! I like palatable foods (#yummylemonbars). But that doesn't mean sugar is going to support my weight loss goals. Because it definitely won't.
Soooo...you're saying I should just eat raw sugar? Yu...no (well, let's be clear--do what you want #IDoWhatIWant). But if you were thinking something along these lines, you're falling pray to the word "natural," and natural does not equal better. Hell, even the word "better" is subjective depending on what your goal is.
If your goal is to lose weight, raw sugar (not to be confused with brown sugar, which is just table sugar hit with molasses) is not better simply because it's more natural. It's still sugar; but unrefined, it does maintain the minerals that are removed in the refining process. This means, raw sugar provides you with some minerals (small amounts of calcium, iron, and potassium). Not enough to make any dietary significance.
So have no fear if you're a plain ol' table sugar eater (and have never even noticed raw sugar at the grocery store), most people are not relying on their sugar intake to reach their micronutrient quota. In fact, I wouldn't recommend it. It's literally a terrible idea.
Artificial sweeteners destroy your gut microbiome
Lots of things in excess (or in complete absence) can destroy your gut microbiome. If you consumed nothing by Diet Coke for weeks on end, I promise, you will destroy your gut microbiome. But we don't do that! We eat foods in a large variety.
Meats, fiber (eat your fiber), fruits, vegetables, and fats (think avocados) are all important for the health of your gut. Artificial sweeteners will certainly not help your gut's microbiome, but eating a balanced diet is far more critical to the health of your gut.
PLUS, research on satiety and habit breaking suggests artificial sweeteners may be the best key to curbing your cravings while trying to lose weight. So for most people, ditching sugar and moving to artificial sweeteners is a better gain than the minimal damage to the gut, assuming you're doing your part to eat a relatively healthy diet.
The takeaway: fiber and macros are more important to the health of your gut than the negative affects of artificial sweeteners.
Calories and Macros Matter More
The bottom line here is that calories and macros matter a lot more than what kind of sweetener you use in your food. So if artificial sweeteners help you reach your goals, use them. And if changing your mentality and taste buds around sugary foods altogether empowers you to lose the weight, you can do that too. But neither sugar nor artificial sweeteners are bad. And if I have a client trying to lose weight but isn't ready to give up her daily Coke, I'm going to see if we can't transition to Diet Coke as a one-step-down tool to help her reach her goals.