Sugar substitutes, the national obesity crisis and your kids’ health

Mehmet Oz, M.D., and Michael Roizen, M.D.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., and Michael Roizen, M.D.

We’re here to talk about a nutritional sleight of hand that’s tricking your body and making you more likely to pack on the pounds, even as you try to shed them.

Over the past several decades, artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes have shown up in everything from the once popular Tab to today’s Coke Zero, and in calorie-free, fruity bottled waters, low-cal yogurts, even whole-grain English muffins and fat-free popcorn! But has that helped you or your kids consume fewer calories and lose or maintain a healthy weight? Doesn’t seem so.

The obesity epidemic has spread out to include almost 36 percent of adults in the U.S. Since the 1980s, childhood obesity rates have gone from 7 percent of kids ages 6 to 11 to nearly 18 percent in 2012. During that same time, obesity rates in adolescents ages 12 to 19 skyrocketed from 5 to 21 percent!

What’s made researchers suspect that artificial sweeteners play a significant role in the increase? The mechanism isn’t clear, but it’s believed that when the mouth tastes an artificial sweetener, the brain sends a signal to the pancreas that sugar’s on its way so it’s time to release insulin to break it down. But when the sugar’s a no-show, you’re left with an overproduction of insulin. Repeated over time, this can lead to insulin resistance, a hallmark of Type 2 diabetes and weight gain.

Also, when the body asks, “What happened to the real sugar?” that can stimulate a craving for glucose, which can trigger binge eating, leading to obesity. (Animal studies have shown this repeatedly.) Eliminating some calories may give you a false sense of health security -- you figure, “Hey, I dodged those calories with my diet drink, so let’s have some fries.”

All this nutritional deception might affect kids even more than adults. A new study from the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases found that children who drank a 12-ounce diet soda absorbed a lot more sucralose into their systems than adults did, because kids are smaller, weigh less and have less blood volume, and their kidneys and livers (which filter out chemicals from the blood) aren’t fully developed. Even though some studies have determined that sucralose is “nontoxic,” the NIDDK researchers emphasize “the need to determine the clinical implications of sucralose use in children.”

But these insights into the risks of consuming artificial sweeteners are just the tip of the iceberg, especially for kids. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics looked at data on more than 3,000 women and their 1-year-old children. Turns out moms who drank diet drinks every day while pregnant doubled the chance that their child would be overweight at 1 year of age -- in all, 5.1 percent of the moms drank diet drinks daily and 5.1 percent of babies studied were overweight at year one!

Why? When moms-to-be drink diet sodas, the developing fetus is getting set up to enter the world with a built-in sugar craving and a disturbed metabolic processes.

Our advice: Depend on fresh fruit (not dried fruit) and whole grains (not packaged or processed treats) to satisfy your hunger for sweetness. And don’t think we’re saying added sugar and sugar syrups are a better bet for your family’s health than artificial sweeteners. In one 15-year study, participants who took in 25 percent or more of their daily calories as sugar doubled their risk of dying from heart disease. That includes a greater risk for heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure. There’s even evidence that drinking sugary beverages shortens your telomeres -- the caps on the ends of your chromosomes that protects them from damage.

So keep your family away from artificial sweeteners and any foods with the Five Food Felons: added sugars and sugar syrups, all trans and most saturated fats and any grain that isn’t 100 percent whole. That goes double for pregnant women and breastfeeding moms!

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, visit