For years people have used artificial sweeteners as an alternative to sugar in order to help them lose weight, reduce calorie intake, and avoid the other potentially negative impact of added sugars. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) just released a guideline saying that these sweeteners not only have very little effect on long-term weight loss, but they may actually increase your risk of certain diseases.
After gathering evidence from a systematic review, the WHO concluded that consuming zero-calorie sweeteners—also referred to as non-sugar sweeteners (NSS)—did not help with significant weight loss or reduction in body fat, both for adults and for children. Not only that, but the review found that these sweeteners could potentially lead to a greater risk in developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and even mortality. Because NSS have been marketed and consumed for years as a healthier alternative to added sugar, the new WHO guidelines may have people wondering what this means for them and what they can eat instead.
What the new WHO guidelines say
In other words, your packets of Splenda, Sweet N’ Low, Equal, and Stevia fall under the new classification. Also included under this umbrella are foods and drinks that use these sweeteners, such as diet soda or many common zero-sugar products. However, using sugar-alcohols and low-calorie sugars is still OK, and the WHO states that the new guidelines don’t apply to these sweeteners.
The new WHO advisory isn’t the first time we are seeing the potential health risks of using zero-calorie sweeteners. A recent study published in the BMJ found that using artificial sweeteners was linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Another study from PLOS Medicine found a link between aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame-K and a higher risk of developing cancer.
And when it comes to weight loss, most of the findings seem to support the WHO’s claims. For instance, a 2020 report published in Frontiers in Nutrition concluded that there really wasn’t a significant impact of NSS on weight loss, while one review published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found they may even contribute to increased weight gain.
Of course, there is a ton of appeal to zero-calorie sweeteners when you’re trying to limit your calorie intake and your consumption of added sugars. So, the new WHO guidelines will have many people wondering what they should do instead. In the new WHO report, Francesco Branca, WHO director of Nutrition and Food Safety, says
What this means for you
“Replacing free sugars with NSS does not help with weight control in the long term,” Francesco Branca, WHO director of Nutrition and Food Safety, explained in the new WHO report.”People need to consider other ways to reduce free sugars intake, such as consuming food with naturally occurring sugars, like fruit, or unsweetened food and beverages.”
According to Ali Bandier, MS, RD, CDN, a dietitian and founder of Senta Health, there are a few helpful tips that people can focus on when they want to find healthy, sustainable replacements for sugar. For starters, Bandier suggests finding ways that you personally love to sweeten your food in a natural way. Some examples include:
Bandier also wants people to know that even though these new guidelines are important, it’s also okay to still find what works for you individually.
“Despite the new guidance, it’s important not to become overwhelmed by sugar and artificial sweeteners. Have the piece of birthday cake, a piece of Halloween candy, or other sweet treats on occasion,” says Bandier. “As long as you generally make wellness-focused choices, an occasional sweet can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet.”
For some, these findings will spark a change in habits. While for others, it may not make much of a difference to their routine. Whether you’re a regular user of zero-calorie sweeteners or just enjoy them on occasion, talk with your doctor or dietitian about how these new guidelines impact your own unique health needs.