Could “diet”, low-calorie, or weight loss drinks be contributing to your IBS?
If you’re like many Canadians, you may reach for artificial sweeteners or “diet” drinks instead of products filled with sugar. You’ve heard about the benefits of decreasing your sugar intake but don’t want to stop eating and drinking your favorite sweet snacks.
While we can all agree that decreasing your sugar intake is important, replacing it with artificial sweeteners is not the best solution.
Artificial sweeteners are found in more and more food and beverage products. New research suggests they may play a role in the development of gut issues, especially in those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
IBS and artificial sweeteners
Up to two-thirds of people with IBS find that their symptoms either begin or get worse when they eat. It only follows that adjusting the diet to find foods that don’t trigger symptoms is a good first step to controlling IBS.
Studies have shown that following two different types of diets can help improve the symptoms of IBS. These diets are:
- Gluten-free. We’ve written more about what gluten does and its relation to IBS.
- Low-FODMAP. This is a diet focused on avoiding the sugars that the gut can’t totally digest. Check out our blog post on the low-FODMAP diet.
But what about foods containing artificial sweeteners? Could they be contributing to symptoms commonly found in IBS?
Just like in humans, the digestive tracts of mice have a collection of good and bad bacteria that must be in a perfect balance to ensure good health. Here I’ve written more about the affect bacteria has on your gut.
After mice were given aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, researchers found they were unable to tolerate sugar. This was because the good bacteria in their digestive tract had been changed by eating the artificial sweeteners.
Is the same true for people?
Researchers studied the effects of artificial sweeteners in a small-scale human study. Seven people either ate or drank food containing saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low) at the maximum amount recommended for one week. When the week was over, four of the seven people had problems digesting sugar. Researchers then took some of their gut bacteria and transplanted it into mice that did not have gut bacteria. After the transplant, none of the mice could tolerate sugar either.(1)
While more research is needed, these early findings suggest that eating and drinking artificial sweeteners negatively affect the good bacteria in your gut. People with IBS are thought to already have gut bacteria that is out of balance. (2) Therefore, eating and drinking artificial sweeteners will only make this imbalance worse.
People with IBS and other gut issues should limit or avoid eating and drinking food that contains artificial sweeteners.
How artificial sweeteners affect bowel movements
There is currently no hard evidence proving that artificial sweeteners affect how the stool moves through the intestines, however, they do affect the hormone that is necessary for bowel movements. Serotonin is best known for its role as a regulator of mood. However, it also controls other bodily functions – including bowel movements.
Sucralose has been shown to increase serotonin production. Increased serotonin speeds up the frequency of bowel movements. (3) If you already have diarrhea due to IBS this is something you definitely want to avoid!
What are artificial sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are chemical compounds made in laboratories. They are used to sweeten processed foods and beverages either in addition to or instead of sugar.
Artificial sweeteners are often marketed as “healthy”, “beneficial”, or “natural” as they don’t contain the calories found in sugar.
In North America, the use of artificial sweeteners is on the rise. From 2007-2008, use of artificial sweeteners by adults increased from 18% to 24%. More alarming, the rate doubled from 6% to 12% in children. (4)
Common varieties of artificial sweeteners include: (5)
- Found in NutraSweet™, Equal™.
- Aspartame is approximately 200 times sweeter than sucrose.
- The FDA’s acceptable daily intake of aspartame is 50 mg/kg/day. One can of Diet Coke contains 188mg of aspartame.
- Found in Splenda™.
- Sucralose is around 600 times as sweet as sucrose.
- The FDA’s acceptable daily intake of sucralose is 5 mg/kg/day. One can of Coke Zero contains 57mg of sucralose.
- Found in Sweet N Low™.
- Saccharin is 200-700 times sweeter than sucrose.
- The FDA’s acceptable daily limit of saccharin is 5 mg/kg/day. Most pop doesn’t contain saccharin as the FDA considered banning it as a carcinogen. Tab soda is the only one containing saccharin. It contains 96mg per can.
In restaurants, you’ll often see these sweeteners in paper packaging for sweetening tea or coffee. In North America, the colors are typically white for sugar, blue for aspartame, pink for saccharin, yellow for sucralose (United States) or cyclamate (Canada).
Aside from diet soda, artificial sweeteners can be found in:
- English muffins (often contain sucralose)
- Iced tea (bottled varieties often contain sucralose and/or acesulfame K)
- Regular ginger ale
- Microwave popcorn
- Pre-marinated meats at the grocery store
- Products that boast ‘No Sugar Added’ like sweetened apple sauce
- Toothpaste and mouthwash
- Chewable vitamins
- Cough syrup and other liquid medicines
- Chewing gum
- Dehydrated fruits
- No-calorie flavored waters and other drinks
- Alcoholic beverages
- Salad dressings
- Frozen yogurt and other frozen desserts
- Prepackaged baked goods
- Breakfast cereals
- Processed snack foods
- “Lite” or diet fruit juices and beverages
- Prepared meats
- Nicotine gum
The difference between sugar and artificial sweeteners
What’s the difference between a regular sweetener and an artificial one?
Calories. Regular sweeteners like sugar contain calories while artificial sweeteners have zero calories or are virtually calorie-free. This is because they are made up of chemical formulations that the body cannot digest. So they make a food or drink taste sweeter when eaten and then pass right through the digestive system.
Sweeteners without calories may sound like a good idea when you’re looking to lose weight, but research suggests otherwise.
Normally, when the body breaks down calories from food, it regulates how much is enough. If you’re eating something sweet, the body associates the sweet taste with calories. When you’ve eaten enough to satisfy your hunger, your digestive system sends a signal to the brain that says “I’m full.”
However, if the calories don’t arrive with the sweet taste when your body expects them to, your brain gets confused and signals that you’re still hungry. Continually eating and drinking artificial sweeteners confuses the system so that our brain no longer knows when the sweet taste signal carries calories and when it doesn’t. This leads to eating more calories. Over time, increased calorie consumption results in weight gain.
How to live without artificial sweeteners
Once you’ve decided to limit or avoid eating and drinking artificial sweeteners you may find it’s easier said than done. Artificial sweeteners have become common ingredients in so many of our prepackaged food products.
But don’t despair – you can do it. Here are some tips to help you clean up your diet:
- Learn to read labels on everything. As mentioned earlier in this post, artificial sweeteners can be found in everything from bread to vitamins to salad dressings.
- Use natural sweeteners. Honey, maple syrup, and dates can all be used as substitutes. Personally, I love maple syrup in my morning coffee 😉
- Adjust your taste buds. Our culture has become used to sweetened food and drinks. One place to start is your choice of drink. Instead of reaching for that sweet juice or pop, try adding lemon, mint or cucumber to water.
Like everything we recommend, small steps are perfectly fine. Every time you eliminate another item that contains an artificial sweetener your body will thank you.
We also recommend following a paleo-style diet for 30 days to find out what foods are triggering your symptoms. Check out our post on trying a 30-day paleo reset diet.
Looking for more ways to combat your IBS?
Be sure to check out all of our blog posts on IBS.
Also published on Medium.