POST SUMMARY: What this means for you…
We all enjoy eating sweets. Thankfully, there are many good treats available sweetened with stevia, xylitol, erythritol, and others that have no effect on your insulin levels. Start slowly though—some sweeteners take some time getting used (they can give you gas or diarrhea at first). Even still, consider these treats, even those that won’t increase your insulin as much as the ‘real’ thing, as things to be enjoyed intermittently. Make an effort to create a structure that is challenging but achievable for you, i.e. one treat every three days, or one treat per week, etc.
Sweeteners are a broad class of non-nutritive compounds—things that taste like sugar but provide little or no calories and no nutrition. The evidence on specific sweeteners and insulin resistance (or many other things) is sparse, though there is enough to mention.
The overall conclusion that artificial sweeteners increase the risk of insulin resistance is supported; people who drink an artificially sweetened (diet) soda daily have a 36% greater chance of developing the metabolic syndrome (remember that it used to be called “insulin resistance syndrome”) and a whopping 67% increased risk of type 2 diabetes . How can this be when diet soda has no calories? Well, there’s no clear answer; just a few theories.
Theory 1: Our Body’s Expectations
Artificial sweeteners may make us want “real” food . In other words, when your body tastes something sweet, it expects a corresponding load of energy—something, anything, that will fuel the body. However, when that energy doesn’t come (remember, the sweetener doesn’t provide anything real), the body craves something that will provide energy. Thus, the person starts out avoiding food by consuming the fake sweetener, then, in the end, ends up eating it anyway.
Theory 2: We Eat More
Artificial sweeteners may make us think we can eat more . In this case, a person purchases a food item that is artificially sweetened and, in so doing, believes they can be more liberal with other foods. Something like, “I’m sure glad this Diet Coke is going to balance out all these fries! Awesome!” Thus, the person eats more than they otherwise would.
Theory 3: Something Called “CPIR”
Third, and my favorite… Some sweeteners elicit an insulin response . This phenomenon is known as the cephalic phase insulin response (CPIR), and we believe that it helps prepare the body for the inevitable carbohydrate load that comes with it. Because it should! In nature, anything sweet would be a carbohydrate. The CPIR is simply the body’s way of “priming the pump” by releasing a little insulin in anticipation of a carbohydrate load, which will cause a subsequent greater insulin release. There are countless sweeteners, but the main ones may cause a CPIR, including aspartame  and saccharin .
In a slight twist, one interesting study explored the effects of various sweeteners on altering the insulin release from a meal (i.e., drinking a sweetened drink while eating) . Drinking sucrose (sugar) with the meal had the highest effect, but, interestingly, aspartame consumption with the meal was almost identical to sugar. Stevia, however, had no effect.
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This blog post (and all other posts and content on this website) is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.
About Benjamin Bikman, Ph.D. – Ben earned his Ph.D. in Bioenergetics and was a postdoctoral fellow with the Duke-National University of Singapore in metabolic disorders. Currently, his professional focus as a scientist and professor (Brigham Young University) is to better understand chronic modern-day diseases, with special emphasis on the origins and consequences of obesity and diabetes. He frequently publishes his research in peer-reviewed journals and presents at international science meetings.