World Health Organization Warns Against Using Non-Sugar Sweeteners For Weight Loss

sugar substitutes next to a cappucino

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Here’s a sugar shock for you.

The idea of whether anyone should be actively pursuing weight loss is a complicated conversation these days, but a new report makes clear that one popular way of attempting it is a dead end.

The World Health Organization warned this week that the artificial sweeteners in our sodas and countless other products should not be used as a way to manage your weight. We’re unpacking this not-so-sweet surprise from the WHO and taking a closer look at some of the other risks that may be associated with sugar substitutes.

What was the WHO’s warning about non-sugar sweeteners and weight loss?

For years, non-sugar sweeteners have been pushed by manufacturers who say they’re a reliable tool for losing weight because they satisfy the sweet tooth without containing any calories. But recent research suggests many sugar substitutes aren’t actually an effective way to maintain your weight.

In a large-scale review of 283 studies, the WHO concluded that a habit of replacing a spoonful of sugar with a splash of stevia won’t help with weight control in the long-term — and the agency has recommended against using zero-calorie artificial sweeteners altogether. The common chemicals it advises against include acesulfame potassium, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia, and stevia derivatives. (The agency says its recommendation doesn’t apply to sugar alcohols or low-calorie sugars — and that those with type 2 diabetes shouldn’t follow this guidance.)

“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,” says Francesco Branca, the WHO’s director for nutrition and food safety. “[Non-sugar sweeteners] are not essential dietary factors and have no nutritional value. People should reduce the sweetness of the diet altogether, starting early in life, to improve their health.”

This recommendation, however, is “conditional,” the WHO says, because there’s still some uncertainty around the link between non-sugar sweeteners and weight loss and other health risks.

What are the other risks of non-sugar sweeteners?

The WHO also warned that the long-term use of these sugar substitutes could increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mortality in adults.

Scientists don’t yet have a clear understanding of how these substances may hurt us, but they have a few working theories. It’s thought these chemicals could mess with the gut microbiome, the mix of bacteria flourishing in the digestive tract, which could alter how the body metabolizes sugar and produce some uncomfortable digestive issues. It’s also possible that if you regularly consume these additives, which are often much sweeter than plain-old sugar, you’re more likely to crave desserts or other sugary treats that aren’t great for your overall health.

The bottom line: Leading a less-sweet life may pay off in the long run.