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Should Diabetics Use Artificial Sweeteners?

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Updated February 17, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: I've been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Will using artificial sweeteners help me control my blood sugar?

Emily - About.com User

Answer: Diabetes is a condition in which your body doesn't make enough insulin, causing elevated levels of glucose to build up in your blood, so it's important to follow a healthy diet and watch your carbohydrate intake so that it's consistent from day to day. If you need to reduce your overall calorie or carbohydrate intake, using artificial sweeteners instead of regular sugars and syrups may help, but they aren't necessary. It's a personal preference.

Artificial sweeteners are non-nutritive sweeteners. They don't affect blood sugar or insulin levels, so many diabetes find them helpful for satisfying their cravings for sweet foods. These sweeteners aren't ideal for everyone. Some people can use them to satisfy their cravings for sweets and others believe it only makes their cravings for regular sugars worse.

Many 'diet' and 'diabetic' foods contain artificial sweeteners, but that doesn't mean they're calorie-free, or even good for you. Make sure you read the food labels to find out how many calories you're consuming. Also look out for added fats and sodium.

Type 2 diabetes is often associated with obesity, so it may be time to lose some of the extra weight. Artificial sweeteners don't add any calories so drinking diet soft drinks instead of sugary sodas should help you lose weight, right? Not always -- it can be a bit of a mind game.

It's easy to tell yourself that since you were a good girl and had a diet soda instead of a regular soda, it's okay to have a candy bar. Or two. The result is taking in as many calories as before (or maybe more) and it can send your blood sugar levels up too high. Some people also find that consuming artificial sweeteners just makes their cravings for regular sugar worse. If this is the case for you, it's probably best to avoid them.

Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Loss

Interestingly, population studies often show that people who drink diet soft drinks are just as overweight (if not more overweight) than people who don't drink them, so clearly there's more to losing weight than simply swapping out your sodas. You need to reduce your total caloric intake from high-fat foods too; drinking a diet soda while wolfing down half of greasy pizza isn't going to help. It's fine to choose a diet soda, but cut way back to one slice of pizza and add a big healthful salad (dressing on the side, please).

Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?

They're safe, at least in the amounts consumed in a normal diet. Artificial sweeteners have been around for years, and there's been plenty of testing as far as safety goes. Saccharine was thought to cause cancer, but it turned out to be a false alarm -- it was something that only happens with male lab rats and not people.

Aspartame causes headaches in some people, and it can't be consumed by someone who has phenylketonuria . Some people simply don't like the idea that they're artificially created in a lab somewhere, so there are some more 'natural' alternatives. Non-nutritive sweeteners made from stevia (an herb), fruits (like monk fruit) and erythritol (a sugar alcohol) are also available in most grocery stores.

Living with diabetes will probably require a number of dietary and lifestyle changes, and not everyone is the same, so please speak to your health care provider, a diabetes educator, or a dietitian or nutritionist who specializes in diabetes before you add artificial sweeteners to your diabetic diet.

Sources:

American Diabetes Association. "Cutting Calories and Carbohydrates." Accessed June 24, 2013. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/artificial-sweeteners/cutting-calories-and-carbohydrates.html.

Gardner C, Wylie-Rosett J, Gidding SS, Steffen LM, Johnson RK, Reader D, Lichtenstein AH; American Heart Association Nutrition Committee of the Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism, Council on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology, Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young; American Diabetes Association. "Nonnutritive sweeteners: current use and health perspectives: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association." Diabetes Care. 2012 Aug;35(8):1798-808.

Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. "Artificial Sweeteners: Sugar-Free, But at What Cost?" Accessed June 24, 2013. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030.

 

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