Artificial sweeteners may be duping our bodies and our minds into thinking we’re losing weight and eventually, they may lead to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke or metabolic syndrome.

These are the findings of new research by behavioral neuroscience professor Susan Swithers, published in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism. Swithers maintains that the effect of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) on the waist line has led many people to opt for diet foods and drinks that contain high-intensity sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin. However, these sweeteners might disturb the body’s ability to count calories and cause weight gain rather than weight loss. They may also cause serious health problems. As far as psychological effects go, people may think they can eat more calories than they should – nothing wrong with a doughnut as long as I down it with a diet soda.

Swithers’ research isn’t the first to warn against SSBs and artificially sweetened beverages (ASBs). A September 2012 examination of three Nurses Health Studies (NHS) showed that higher SSB and ASB intake is associated with an increased risk of developing hypertension and more so for carbonated beverages versus non-carbonated beverages, and for cola-containing versus non-cola beverages. An association between fructose and hypertension was deemed unlikely.

Nevertheless, Swithers’ article has raised some eyebrows. The official journal of the UK’s International Association for the Study of Obesity responded that while there is strong evidence to support the conjecture that reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption might reduce obesity, evidence when testing the effect is weak.

A representative of the Calorie Control Council, a lobbying group for the manufacturers of artificial sweeteners, criticized Swithers for ignoring “the large body of scientific research that demonstrates the safety and benefits of low-calorie sweeteners.” The rep added however, that low-calorie sweeteners are “one aspect of a multifaceted approach to health or obesity prevention.”

Swithers agrees there is a bigger picture and we need to pay much more attention to how much artificial sweetener we are consuming overall, both in drinks and in the rest of our diet.

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