Artificial sweeteners are a popular substitute for sugar in coffee, sodas, baking, and more. An observational study found that artificial sweeteners are leading to weight gain instead of weight loss–contrary to common thought.

Artificial Sweeteners Are Leading to Weight Gain

If something is labeled “sugar-free,” it’s more than likely been sweetened with artificial sweeteners. Brands like Stevia, Truvia, Sweet N’ Low, and Splenda are all types of artificial sweeteners that companies use to help their products still taste good.

Another common one is aspartame, which has been getting a bad reputation the last couple years for leading to cancer. This sweetener is most often found in diet and “zero” sodas.

People feel like they’re getting the best of both worlds by having a soda or sugar-free yogurt, but it could be harming them more than they think.

The study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, reviewed 37 studies about artificial sweeteners, looking to see if they were an effective weight loss option. Altogether, the studies followed about 400,000 over the course of 10 years. Of the 37 studies, 7 of them were randomized controlled trials.

What the researchers found was that artificial sweeteners are leading to weight gain. The observational studies showed that people who drank one or more artificially-sweetened drink a day displayed a higher risk for obesity, weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes.

This finding is contrary to the effects that people assume drinking sugar-free soda would have. The study author and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba in Canda, Megan Azad, stated, “I think there’s an assumption that when there are zero calories, there is zero harm. This research has made me appreciate that there’s more to it than calories alone.”

These new findings are adding to the pile of existing research that states artificial sweeteners are leading to weight gain. However, there is no definitive proof that the sweeteners themselves are to blame.

Rather, it’s the side-effects that may lead to weight gain. For example, people who consume large quantities of sweeteners tend to eat more processed food, which also leads to heart health issues.

There are still theories that artificial sweeteners are to blame for health problems. One theory is that they prevent a bacteria in your gut called microbiome.

Microbiome are key for the absorption of nutrients. If they can’t work properly, then your food isn’t getting processed and you could be absorbing only the unhealthy nutrients.

Another theory is that the sweeteners make people crave sugar or sweeter foods, leading them to eat too many treats. It could also be that people think that because they didn’t drink their calories, they can splurge on other goodies.

Either way, artificial sweeteners are leading to weight gain whether it be the sole blame or the way it affects the body’s functions. There is no definitive answer to the question yet, though.

One dissenting statement came from the Calorie Control Council saying, “Low-calorie sweeteners are a tool to help provide sweet taste without calories to address one aspect of calorie intake,” remarked Robert Rankin, President of the Calorie Control Council. “Individualized strategies are critical for successful body weight management and should address not only dietary preferences, but also physical activity, and medical considerations to help each person achieve their health goals, including those related to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and hypertension.”

For now, despite no concrete data, it may be wise to limit the amount of artificial sweeteners you consume. Try sticking to water and naturally flavored drinks instead.