Sugar substitutes can cause weight gain and blood sugar problems

Sugar Substitutes are Unhealthy

Sugar substitutes can be unhealthy, cause weight gain, lead to blood sugar dysregulation and prevent important behaviour change to eating habits.

The 3 main issues with sugar substitutes

There are three main issues when considering whether to use sugar substitutes.

  1. Some sugar substitutes are unhealthy

  2. Some have been shown to cause weight gain and blood sugar problems (the body reacts as though you're eating real sugar)

  3. Eating them won't necessarily address eating behaviour problems or sugar addiction 

What are sugar substitutes?

Artificial or synthetic types

These include Aspartame, Saccharin, Neotame (Aspartame formula only much sweeter), Sucralose, Acesulfame Potassium.

They contain few calories. Aspartame is a neurotoxin, immunotoxin and excitotoxin. Neotame may be an even more potent and dangerous form.

Other health problems for these sweeteners is that they can cause atherosclerosis, gut inflammation and brain impairment; can be carcinogenic (cancer causing); and can worsen inflammatory bowel disease or IBS. They can also create a blood sugar reaction (see below).

Sugar alcohols or polyols

These are Xylitol, Erythritol, Maltitol, Isomalt, Lactitol, HSH (hydrogenated starch hydrosates).

These have between one third to one half less calories. They’re converted to glucose but more slowly than natural sweeteners. Some types are known to cause digestive symptoms and joint swelling. They may cause a blood sugar reaction (see below).


Stevia is a plant-based sweetener containing hardly any calories. It's the healthiest sugar substitute choice because it is natural and doesn’t cause a blood sugar reaction (see below).

Cephalic phase response or blood sugar reaction

Hunger starts in the brain with the thought and smell of food. This is known as the cephalic phase response or CPR. Cephalic refers to the brain and the measurable physical responses to the expectation of food, lasting around ten minutes. With this response, salivation occurs in the mouth and gastric juices are secreted into the stomach before food is even received. Brain neurons also signal the pancreas to alert the body that glucose is coming, releasing insulin in preparation for a meal, again before any actual change in blood glucose levels. Insulin regulates blood glucose levels, signalling the cells to uptake and convert this into energy in the cells.

While artificial sweeteners in themselves are not sufficient to start the CPR, when paired with flavour they are, even if the digestive phase doesn’t happen with the lack of calories or bulk.

The sweetness of artificial sweeteners can therefore

  • Raise insulin levels causing a blood sugar crash when no sugar arrives

  • Stimulate hunger, making people eat more

  • Regular use of artificial sweeteners may also change the balance of our gut bacteria, making our cells resistant to the insulin we produce and leading to both increased blood sugar and insulin levels

Weight gain

Research shows that people lose more weight drinking water than artificially sweetened drinks. Artificial sweeteners appear to have a negative impact on weight. Anecdotally, people appear to reach a plateau with artificial sugars in terms of weight loss and metabolic issues.

A recent review of of studies on sugar substitutes found no evidence of any health benefits, that they may not help people lost weight and that there’s not enough evidence on their safety.

Psychological considerations

If sweeteners were the answer, we wouldn’t be experiencing the current worldwide obesity epidemic.

Psychologically, people need to get away from sweetness. Sweetness makes people want to eat more.

Also, people believe they can eat more because they’re not eating sugar.

If you want something sweet

Some alternatives.

  • Eat fruit. If you eat little sugar, you’ll find the sweetness incredible

  • Use a little stevia occasionally, but no more than 1 tsp at a time. They contain hormone-like structures and some studies suggest they may act as mutagens and be carcinogenic

  • When comparing stevia to aspartame and sucrose, stevia came out best in terms of raising insulin levels

What to do about sugar cravings

Sugar is physically addictive. MRIs show that eating sugar incites (via the effect of insulin on dopamine) more pleasure in the brain than drugs do.

To reduce sugar cravings

Taking the following action will stop your sugar cravings, but you need to be consistent

  • Reduce or cut out out refined carbohydrates from your diet, which will prevent unhealthy blood sugar spikes and crashes, where you find yourself reaching for a quick and unhealthy sugar fix

  • Ditch the standard low and unhealthy fats diet. Replace this with healthy fats that not only satiate your body but result in the slower release of proteins and carbs preventing blood sugar ups and downs

  • Add in well-sourced proteins for the body to use as energy and for vitamins and minerals

  • Take minerals like chromium and magnesium to help reduce cravings and blood sugar levels (specially made supplements are available)

  • Investigate and heal any possible gut issues such as leaky gut and candida

If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.


The Paleo Approach, Dr Sarah Ballantyne, Victory Belt Publishing, Las Vegas, 2013