Questions from ARC Hotline: Aspartame and Weight Loss

By Althea Zanecosky, MS, RD, LDN
Questions from ARC Hotline: Aspartame and Weight Loss
Consumers who are trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss should be happy to learn that recent scientific evidence found that the use of aspartame as a sugar substitute to reduce the calorie content of foods and beverages can help people lose weight.
December 5, 2006

The following questions came into the Aspartame Resource Center. We asked Althea Zanecosky, MS, RD, LDN to respond.

Does aspartame help you lose weight?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) is a rich source of information about our country's health. In NCHS's most recent survey (2003-2004) of the American population called the National Health and Nutrition Examination or NHANES, the percent of people age 20 years and over who are overweight or obese was 66.3 or 2 out of 3 adults. And the news for our children is also alarming: 17% of adolescents age 12-19 years are overweight and 19% of children age 6-11 years are overweight.

Another organization, The Trust for America's Health, also released a distressing evaluation of Americans weight. This group found that the rate of obesity continues to climb in thirty-one states and has remained the same (since their report two years ago) in eighteen other states and the District of Columbia. Although the group focuses primarily on government actions to counteract this trend, the bottom line is that it is still the individual who must make changes in lifestyle to either prevent or treat obesity.

Consumers who are trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss should be happy to learn that recent scientific evidence found that the use of aspartame as a sugar substitute to reduce the calorie content of foods and beverages can help people lose weight. A recent review published in the British Nutrition Foundations June 2006 Nutrition Bulletin examined the results of sixteen studies that compared the calorie intake of healthy adults between nineteen and fifty years old who consumed either aspartame-sweetened beverages or foods, or who ate the same items sweetened with sugar. What they found was a 10 percent reduction in calorie intake by the aspartame users as compared to that of the sugar consumers. This reduction averaged to a calorie deficit of about 222 calories per day. While 200 less calories daily may not seem like a major change, if maintained over the course of a year, this would lead to a potential weight loss of over twenty-three pounds of body weight.

In a few of the studies within this meta-analysis, there was some compensation for the calorie deficit. Some research found that people using aspartame consumed more calories from other foods or beverages, but it amounted to less than one-third of the calorie reduction. So in spite of replacing calories from the sugar substitute, people did lose weight when they used aspartame to reduce calorie intake.

The review authors emphasized that "using foods and drinks sweetened with aspartame instead of those sweetened with sucrose is an effective way to maintain and lose weight without reducing the palatability of the diet." So while government and the public health community are working to slow down or reverse the obesity epidemic, individuals can include aspartame-sweetened food products into their diets to help themselves.

Using aspartame instead of sugar is one way Americans can help reduce the number of calories consumed daily without any loss of taste. And while most people know aspartame as a tabletop sweetener, it is also found in many foods that can help individuals lose weight, including carbonated and powdered soft drinks, hot chocolate, chewing gum, candy, desserts, and yogurt.

The Bottom Line: People who substitute aspartame-sweetened foods and beverages for those that are sweetened with caloric sweeteners should definitely see a weight loss over time, as long as other food intake and activity levels are kept constant. A new scientific review of the data fills a gap in the science behind the sweetener. In addition, increased activity and/or exercise is an important adjunct to any weight management program.

Why would I use aspartame instead of regular sugar?

Carbohydrates are part of a healthful diet. Experts recommend about 45 to 65 percent of total calories come from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates come in two forms - sugars and starches - which supply energy to the body in the form of glucose. Glucose is the only energy source for red blood cells and is the preferred energy source for the brain, central nervous system, placenta and fetus. Sugars can be naturally present in foods (such as the fructose in fruit or the lactose in milk) or added to the food. Added sugars, also known as caloric sweeteners, are sugars and syrups that are added to foods at the table or during processing or preparation (such as high fructose corn syrup in sweetened beverages and baked products). Although the body's response to sugars does not depend on whether they are naturally present in a food or added to the food, added sugars supply calories but few or no nutrients.

It is important to choose carbohydrates wisely. Foods in the basic food groups that provide carbohydrates - fruits, vegetables, grains, and milk - are important sources of many nutrients. Choosing plenty of these foods, within the context of a calorie-controlled diet, can promote health and reduce chronic disease risk. However, the greater the consumption of foods containing large amounts of added sugars, the more difficult it is to consume enough nutrients without gaining weight. Consumption of added sugars provides calories while providing little, if any, of the essential nutrients.

Below is a table showing the major sources of added sugars (caloric sweeteners) in the American diet:

Food Categories Contribution to Added Sugars Intake (percent of total added sugars consumed)
Regular soft drinks 33.0
Sugars and candy 16.1
Cakes, cookies, pies 12.9
Fruit drinks (fruitades and fruit punch) 9.7
Dairy desserts and milk products (ice cream, sweetened yogurt, and sweetened milk) 8.6
Other grains (cinnamon toast and honey-nut waffles) 5.8

Source: Guthrie and Morton, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2000.

Humans are born with a taste for sweets - a fact that can serve us well. For example, breast milk is naturally sweet and packed with nutrients. The same is true for fruit. But sweetness in the form of refined table sugar packs plenty of calories. But how can consumers satisfy their sweet tooth without calories? There's a safe option - aspartame - and many people are choosing it instead of sugar. Here's how aspartame can help:

  1. To save calories:one teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories, whereas aspartame has less than 1 calorie per teaspoon in aspartame
  2. For dental health:sugar substitutes do not cause cavities
  3. To help control blood sugar:sugar substitutes reduce the total carbohydrate in meals and snacks and therefore can be a help in managing blood sugar levels.

No matter what your reason, low-calorie sweeteners including aspartame are commonly purchased staples. Nearly 1,500 foods are sweetened with sugar substitutes. Hundreds of studies conducted with animals and humans support aspartame's safety. In 1996, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved aspartame for use in all foods and beverages; aspartame is also approved in 100 other nations. Leading health authorities, including the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association agree that aspartame is safe for the general population. The only individuals identified who need to monitor aspartame intake are those with the rare genetic condition known as Phenylketonuria (PKU), for which extremely rigid restrictions of almost all protein-containing foods are imposed.

As you sort out the sweeteners in your life, you'll find wise counsel in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published in 2005 by the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture. These guidelines suggest that you:

  • Remember that foods with sugar substitutes can still have calories and fat. Read product nutrition labels.
  • Get most of your calories from whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, and lean meats or meat substitutes.
  • Exercise regularly to control your weight.

For more information:

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture.

"Sweeteners." MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health.

Questions from ARC Hotline: Aspartame and Weight Loss

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