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Is Artificial Sweetener Bad For You?

So, Your Diet Food Addiction Might Just Be Sabotaging Your Gut

Puddle of melted ice cream with cone and sprinkles.

While most people may have resolved to getting back in the gym, or Mario Konding their entire life as their New Year's resolution, our focus has been spotlighting in an entirely different direction; our guts.

Understandably, this might feel left of field. But Lately, we've been obsessed with everything and anything related to the functions of our guts. From the brain-gut connection, the impact exercise can have on our good bacteria, to spending an unnecessarily large portion of our income on Kombucha, we're currently living by the motto — happy gut, happy life.

And this resolution is not unfounded. With an ever-growing and evolving pool of research suggesting an interaction between our gut and almost all other aspects of wellness — from our skin, to our mental health — when it comes to living healthier and happier lives this is one area of improvement we shouldn't be overlooking.

Recently, research was published that indicated low-calorie, artificial sweeteners possess the potential to disrupt the gut bacteria in healthy people, along with an associated impairment of blood sugar control. Obviously, this isn't good news, and for those of us who regularly fall back on a diet drink in a bid to cut calories or satisfy sugar cravings (guilty), this is a relatively scary finding. Additionally, when we stop to consider the other ways in which we unknowingly consume these products (some toothpastes have even been found to contain artificial sweeteners), we obviously had some questions.

To learn more we reached out to, Dr Paula Smith-Brown, an accredited practicing dietitian at Microba and expert on the topic to break down the findings of this recent study. Keep reading to see what she had to say below.

Ideally, what should a "healthy" gut look like?

The gut is home to a community of microorganisms known as the microbiome. The microbiome plays a very important role in the body including contributing to gut, metabolic and immune health. Each person's microbiome is unique and there is no "perfect" microbiome we should all aspire to. However, as a general rule of thumb we know that healthier people tend to have more diverse microbiomes, which means they have lots of different species within their microbiome without any species becoming overly abundant or dominant.

Why are artificial sweeteners thought to be so disruptive to our guts?

It is not fully understood why artificial sweetener consumption if associated with changes in the microbiome, but it is thought that it may be due to their ability to prevent certain bacteria from growing while feeding other species of bacteria, therefore disrupting the overall balance in the community of microorganisms.

What are the key concerns we should be aware of when it comes to using artificial sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are intensely sweet compounds which can be added to foods at much lower levels than sugar. Most are not absorbed by the body and therefore do not enter the blood stream. Replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners is promoted as a strategy to reduce energy (calorific) intake or prevent spikes in blood sugar. However, evidence is not consistent that their inclusion in the diet is helpful in managing weight or blood sugars. As artificial sweeteners are not absorbed by the small intestine, they reach the large intestine where they have potential to influence the gut microbiome.

Recent research has indicated that artificial sweeteners could make it harder for our bodies to process and regulate sugar and other carbs, why is this?

The gut microbiome plays an important role in metabolism including how blood sugar is processed in the body. Glucose is the main fuel our body utilises and the levels within our blood are generally tightly controlled. Glucose is principally obtained through the digestion and metabolism of carbohydrates in the diet, however, dietary sugars cause the most rapid increase in blood sugar levels. Animal models and limited research in humans suggests that consumption of artificial sweeteners can cause changes in the gut microbiome resulting in adverse effects on the control of blood glucose levels, known as glucose intolerance.

Can our gut bacteria affect our overall well-being and weight?

Our gut microbiome is an essential part of our body and plays many important roles and functions which contribute to our overall well-being. Although there has been much interest in the research exploring the association between weight status and the gut microbiome, so far there has been no consistent microbiome profile associated with obesity. This might be because most research has been conducted using an older style of technology which only identifies which species are present in the microbiome, whereas the mechanism linking the microbiome to obesity most likely involves alterations in certain functions that the microbiome performs, for example through alterations in digestions, metabolism or inflammation.

Should we be looking to avoid artificial sweeteners in our diet?

Food sweetened with artificial sweeteners are not an essential part of a healthy diet and should be considered "sometimes" foods. Some people may not be aware that they are being exposed to artificial sweeteners not only through processed foods and drinks but also in personal care products such as toothpaste.

Are artificial sweeteners less harmful than normal sugar?

When looking at nutrition it is important not to look at individual ingredients or nutrients but rather consider the balance of foods within a diet. For example, fruits are a natural source of sugar in the diet, but they are also important sources of vitamins and prebiotic fibres and as such are considered highly nutritious and healthy foods overall. However, processed foods with high amounts of added sugar or artificial sweeteners often provide limited nutritional value to a diet, so should only be consumed in moderation.

How can we improve our gut health?

Diet is considered one of the most important factors which influences the activity of our gut microbiome. Overall, the evidence suggests that a diet rich in whole plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, nuts, pulses and legumes, is the best way to ensure the health of the gut microbiome. There is also emerging evidence that physical activity interacts with the microbiome, while maintaining muscle mass is important for glucose metabolism.

Image Source: Getty / Juj Winn
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