Heavy Allegations: A link between low calorie sweeteners and weight gain?

A recent article in the New York Times says NO.

The February 17, 2009 edition of the New York Times featured an article entitled, “Sweeteners – Real Aid or Excuse to Indulge?” which address allegations of a relationship between the use of low calorie sweeteners and weight gain.  The article poses the question that has been a topic of much debate over the years: “Does a weight problem prompt people to try to cut calories, or does the consumption of artificial sweeteners lead to their weight problem?”  The article cites a recent paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in which Richard D. Mattes of Purdue University and Barry M. Popkin of the University of North Carolina reviewed 224 professional studies on the effects of non-nutritive sweeteners on appetite, food intake and weight.  Mattes and Popkin conclude ''taken together, the evidence summarized by us and others suggests that if non-nutritive sweeteners are used as substitutes for higher-energy-yielding sweeteners, they have the potential to aid in weight management.''

In regards to recent research alleging low calorie sweeteners may contribute to a heightened desire for sweet tasting foods, the New York Times article states that although a  few animal studies have alleged a link between low calorie sweeteners and weight gain, as Dr. George Blackburn stated, ''Man is not a rat.''  According to the New York Times article, Dr. Blackburn, director of the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, noted that when people are motivated to lose weight, non-nutritive sweeteners can help.  The New York Times article references a two year clinical trial (the gold standard of research), in which Dr. Blackburn and his colleagues randomly assigned dieters to consume liquid calories or “artificially” sweetened drinks for 175 weeks.  The study found that those who drank the diet drinks took in 100 fewer calories a day and lost significantly more weight while keeping more weight off.  According to Dr. Blackburn, ''Those 100 calories add up to 10 pounds a year.  Small changes in caloric intake can result in small but meaningful healthier weights.  Most people would be happy with that.'' (Blackburn, G. L., Kanders, B. S., Lavin, P. T., Keller, S. D., and Whatley, J. 1997)  The article further cites research by Dr. Barbara Rolls and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University that have conducted short-term studies using low calorie sweeteners as substitutes for sugar to reduce energy intake. According to the New York Times article, they found them effective ''when used as a real substitute and not an excuse to eat a lot of other things,'' Dr. Rolls said. ''Why waste the calories?''

The New York Times article also cites research demonstrating that the benefits of low calorie sweeteners apply to children as well.  In a 19-month observational study among 548 middle-school children, Dr. David Ludwig and colleagues at Harvard University found that children who drank diet drinks did not gain weight.  In a six-month follow-up study, overweight children given zero calorie drinks experienced significant weight loss compared with those who consumed regular soft drinks.

Low-calorie sweeteners and the products that contain them are not “magic bullets” for weight loss.  Instead, light products and low-calorie sweeteners are tools to help people reduce and control their caloric intake.  Leading health authorities agree that “light” products can be used as “tools” as part of an overall weight control program, which includes a reduction in calories and an increase in activity.

To access the New York Times article, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/health/17brod.html

To view the Popkin abstract, visit: http://www.ajcn.org/