Aspartame, also known by its brand name NutraSweet, sweetens many foods while keeping calories low. This ingredient is especially popular for "diet" foods and drinks, such as Diet Coke or light yogurt. But aspartame does not necessarily aid in weight loss. Depending on other eating habits, eating foods with aspartame can help people lose weight or actually might contribute to weight gain.
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener made out of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Discovered in 1965 and approved for use in food by the Food and Drug Administration in 1985, aspartame has been called the most studied food additive in history. Aspartame is considered safe with reasonable consumption, according to major medical institutions such as the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association despite ongoing controversy surrounding its use. Manufacturers add just a little aspartame to foods to create 200 times the sweetness that sugar can provide and with no calories at all.
Weight Loss and Calories
Weight loss requires you take in fewer calories than your body needs to produce energy, forcing the body to break down fat for energy. To lose 1 pound, you need to liberate the equivalent of 3,500 calories in stored energy reserves. Dieters should look for ways to decrease calorie intake from foods and drinks, as well as increasing exercise to burn more calories. To keep calorie intake low, "diet" foods are frequently put in place of regular versions, such as diet soda for regular soda. Light or "lite" versions of foods such as yogurt, cookies, hot cocoa or candy that contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are also common substitutes for full-calorie versions.
One of the criticisms of using aspartame-sweetened foods for weight loss is that the sweet taste still tricks the brain into thinking it's hungry. This hypothesis would lead to a triggered effect in the body that would release digestive enzymes and insulin, actually increasing hunger cues and potentially causing a person to eat more. But consistently, past research did not draw this conclusion. Scientists studying this issue saw that consuming aspartame did not increase insulin, increase appetite, or increase eating and drinking more calories overall.
Despite this previous evidence, research paints a different picture. In one study, published in 2008 in the journal "Obesity," researchers studied more than 5,000 participants for up to eight years and found that the waistlines of people who drank diet soft drinks increased 70 percent more than people who didn't drink diet soda. They suggested that brain triggers activated by the sweet, calorie-less taste experience might be responsible.
Several strategies can help make a weight reduction plan successful. First off, use aspartame-sweetened foods to save calories, but only eat or drink them as part of a meal or complete snack. Drink a diet soda with lunch or some veggies with hummus for a snack rather than by itself. This will help the body feel satisfied and not feel like it still needs to go find more calories. Also be conscious of overall calorie intake. Having lower-calorie sweets with aspartame doesn't give permission to eat the whole box or bag. Or the diet soda doesn't justify a double cheeseburger with fries. Keep track of the total calories eaten daily to make sure overall calorie goals line up for weight loss efforts.
- HSC Press Release: "Related studies point to the illusion of the artificial"
- Stop Gaining Weight"; Laura Pawlak; 2005
- "American Dietetics Association's Complete Food and Nutrition Guide"; Roberta Larson Duyff; 2006
- Obesity: Fueing the Obesity Epidemic? Artificially Sweetened Beverage Use and Long-Term Weight Gain