By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Around age 12, like millions of other girls, I started to pay attention to my weight. In the natural transition from girlhood to teenage years, hormonal changes can add a few pounds which eventually burn off as you get deeper into your teenage years. It's a part of growing up. But I chose to do what millions of other girls do. I looked for something to blame for the new pounds and I fastened on a culprit --- desserts. Cookies at lunch, gone. Donuts, gone. Sugar in my tea, gone.
Instead, my life became a never-ending, relentless hunt to find foods without sugar and, better yet, foods with artificial sweeteners. Diet Pepsi became my best friend. So did the little pink packets of saccharin and little blue packets of Equal. Those little packets made me a silent promise that I could in fact eat sugar-free but still satisfy my sweet tooth.
But a funny thing happened on my way to freedom from sugar. I gained weight.
In fact, those teenage pounds morphed into early adult pounds and post-baby pounds.
What happened? Was I cursed? Why do some people eat all the sugar they want and effortlessly maintain an ideal weight, while others struggle even though we don't eat any sugar and only eat fake sugar in the form of artificial sweeteners.
Zero Calorie Does Not Mean Zero Weight Gain or Zero Diabetes
Luckily, while I was puzzling about the reason for my weight gain, scientists were also puzzled about the same thing. Why, they asked, were Americans gaining more and more weight at the same time that more of us were eating "zero calorie" and "diet foods"?
To answer that question, we have to go back in time. In 1879, a scientist named Constantine Fahlberg was hard at work trying to discover new food preservatives when he accidentally spilled some of the compound he was creating on his hands. To his surprise, the compound tasted incredibly sweet. Thus, saccharin was discovered.
Even early on, some people were afraid of using this sugar substitute. But, like today, often reasonable questioning is shamed into silence by political figures. Back in that day, the most famous and respected figure was former President Theodore Roosevelt. He famously said "Anyone who thinks saccharin is dangerous is an idiot".
When World War I broke out, the US started sending packets of saccharin overseas with our troops because sugar, you might recall, was being rationed. So started our nation's love affair with saccharin. Saccharin's pink packets have had a rocky career on America's dinner tables since it was discovered to cause cancer when given in high doses to lab mice.
After the cancer finding, manufacturers have introduced three other sweeteners, aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal), sucralose (Splenda) and stevia.
Now, scientists have discovered that most of these artificial sweeteners cause changes in your bodies insulin response, which can lead to diabetes. And the sweeteners make you gain weight. The only possible exception is stevia, which so far has not been linked to increases in diabetes risk.
Scientists from the Weizmann Institute in Israel have performed several studies on both lab rats and humans to test this causal connection between sugar substitutes, diabetes and weight gain.
They started with two groups of lab rats. One group was fed its normal diet and water. The other group ate the same diet but the scientists added saccharin to their water. After 8 weeks, the group which had the sugar substitutes had developed insulin resistance. The group also had gained weight.
The amount of saccharin added was well within the equivalent ranges of amounts a human would consume.
The same insulin disturbances and weight gain resulted when aspartame (Nutrasweet and Equal are two rand names for aspartame) or sucralose (marketed as Splenda in the US) was used as the sugar substitute. Most importantly, the same results were obtained when the experiments were repeated with humans.
Why Do Sugar Substitutes Make You Gain Weight?
The scientists believe that adding artificial sweeteners to your diet change the natural bacterial environment of your gut.
Our guts contain a natural bacterial jungle called the "microbiome". Sugar substitutes appear to increase certain species of bacteria and to depress certain others.
Specifically, these sweeteners increase bacteria from the "Bacteroides" genus and certain of the "Clostridiales order", while decreasing Lactobacilli.
Disturbing the bacterial balance in your gut directly "deranges" your body's ability to produce insulin. This in turn promotes both weight gain and increases your risk for developing diabetes.
In fact, when the scientists treated the mice with antibiotics designed to restore the bacterial balance, the insulin derangements disappeared as did the weight gain.
How To Restore Your Gut's Natural Environment
The study did not recommend dietary changes to restore your gut's natural balance. But here are a few suggestions.
Add unsweetened yogurt with live to your diet. Yogurt is rich in lactobacilli, the type of bacteria killed off by sugar substitutes. Add fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles and other probiotics. Stop drinking sodas sweetened with any artificial sweetener. Drink water, milk and small amounts of juice instead.
And, stop eating desserts with these fake sugars.