Erythritol: The Diet Sweetener that May Cause Weight Gain

Dr. Christopher McGowan
August 15, 2020

It is worth being skeptical of any food or additive promising amazing results. Can it be true that zero-calorie sweeteners are actually healthy for you? Is it even possible to still eat sweets and lose weight?

One sugar substitute making bold claims is a product called Truvia. Billed as a zero-calorie natural sweetener, this relatively new additive could seem primed to be a great candidate for keeping tasty foods in your diet without adding extra calories. But, how is this possible?

Non-Caloric Sweeteners for Weight Loss

Across the board, low-calorie or zero-calorie sweeteners used in sugar-free foods have the same goal—adding the sweet taste to foods we have come to know and love while lowering the amount of calories you absorb from the food you eat.

Every sugar substitute comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. On the simplest level, these additives are not processed by your body in the same way table sugar is. Though you are ingesting them, the energy stored in these additives cannot be easily metabolized by your body. Regular sugar is made of sucrose that is turned into glucose as it is digested, which is then passed on to your cells to be used or stored as fat. This is not the case with some sugar substitutes, as your body lacks the enzymes necessary to metabolize these additives.

There are two main types of sugar substitutes approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the market today. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin make up the first batch. These are made from chemicals that are not normally part of the food chain and are synthesized through industrial processes. The second group comprises naturally occurring substances from the plant kingdom that are extracted or processed to make them easy to consume or incorporate into various foods and drinks. This second category includes products like the plant extract stevia and a category of chemicals called polyols—better known as sugar alcohols. 

Polyols are a family of sugar alcohols that occur naturally in fruits such as watermelons. Xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol are all closely related chemically, and all are used as food additives. Though they are all quite similar structurally, they have different effects on the body.

Are Stevia and Truvia Good for Weight Loss?

Let’s say you aren’t ready to remove sweets from your diet entirely. You have worked with your doctor or nutritionist to come up with a target number of calories you should eat a day, but still want to add a little something tasty in the mix while you get started. In this case, changing to low-calorie sweeteners like stevia or the erythritol found in Truvia can be a step in the right direction. These natural sweeteners have fewer calories than sugar, and fewer side effects than many other artificial sweeteners. 

Cutting calories is a component of losing weight, so stevia and sugar alcohols certainly fit the bill in this regard. There is debate, though, if you can call them properly good for weight loss. High levels of erythritol in your blood have been identified as a possible contributor to weight gain. This appears to be particularly true for children and young adults.

Unlike some other artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are classified as carbs. This is something you will need to be aware of if you are following a strict ketogenic (or keto) diet. While polyols have a very low glycemic index, they are still counted as carbs, and should be kept in check if you are maintaining a strict high-protein, low-carb diet.

These two concerns are not the full story on erythritol. If you are overweight and have been for some time, there is a higher likelihood you may be experiencing the symptoms associated with type 2 diabetes. If this is the case, or if you have already been diagnosed with diabetes, then managing your blood sugar levels has already become part of your daily routine. 

Here is an area where erythritol may be something you will want to consider. Since erythritol is not converted as readily into glucose, studies have shown your levels of blood sugar will likely remain more stable after eating a meal containing erythritol than consuming the same foods made with normal table sugar. 

The benefits don’t stop at helping manage insulin levels either. Some research has suggested there may be benefits to the overall health of vascular tissue for individuals suffering from diabetes who switch to erythritol.

Side Effects of Artificial Sweeteners for Weight Loss

One negative side effect common to many sugar alcohols is the potential consequences of introducing these sweeteners into your gut. Some evidence points to disruption of natural gut flora due to the different bacterial interactions brought about by larger amounts of sugar alcohols. Additionally, some substances like xylitol can be fermented in the gut, which can lead to boating, abdominal pain, and increased flatulence. 

A bit of extra gas and bloating is potentially embarrassing, but a more serious consequence of ingesting large amounts of artificial sweeteners is dehydration. It may seem paradoxical to think you could become more dehydrated by drinking diet soda, but the sweeteners used in some diet drinks can produce a phenomenon called osmotic diarrhea. Some sweeteners, including many sugar alcohols, can draw moisture into your intestines as your body attempts to digest these additives. This process can lead to a loosening of the stool and even dangerous dehydration. 

The dehydration associated with sugar substitutes is a significant concern for many different segments of the population. Not only are the elderly and children at particular risk for the dangers of dehydration, but individuals who have undergone a bariatric revision or a weight loss procedure that diminishes the available size of their stomach can be placed in a position of serious risk. If you have had a weight loss surgery or procedure, the amount of liquid you can drink will have been greatly reduced. If the very liquids you are drinking are actually causing you to lose water into your stool, this can have potentially harmful effects. 

Exploring the Evidence for Weight Gain with Sugar Substitutes

It would be easy to take a surface look at artificial sweeteners and think they are a silver bullet against sugar if you are trying to lose weight. This is not the full picture, though. While many studies have shown favorable results for erythritol, it turns out there is another aspect to the data that is still being researched.

A 2017 study suggested there may be a link between levels of erythritol in the blood and weight gain. This may seem contradictory to everything else written about a food additive used to help people lose weight, but there is more to the story than simply county calories. 

Research seems to suggest erythritol intake is correlated to weight gain even though it is not metabolized as readily as sugar. This may be possible due to the chemical reactions that happen after erythritol gets into your blood. Some studies have shown that having high levels of erythritol in your blood can lead to an increase in overall weight, belly fat, and changes in body composition. More research is needed to examine the exact metabolic link between elevated levels of blood erythritol and blood glucose, but for now this research seems to point to something doctors have been encouraging us to do for a long time; if you want to lose weight, there is no substitute for eating a healthy, low-sugar diet. 

Can Artificial Sweeteners Lead to Weight Gain?

Why the human body will gain or lose weight is not quite as simple as how many calories go in and how many go out. Studies have correlated the rise of many different sugar replacements in the American diet with a rising trend in obesity. There are, however, many potential contributing factors to America’s growing obesity epidemic. There is much debate in the scientific community about what exactly the causes might be and how they all contribute.

One simple reason you might experience an increase in body weight after switching to sugar-free options is you may be eating and drinking more of those same unhealthy foods. If you consume more of a low-calorie beverage thinking it is healthier for you than the full sugar version, you may end up taking in more calories in the long run than you intend. 

It is also possible there are some effects of elevated levels of erythritol that are not yet fully understood. Though humans lack the enzymes necessary to metabolize erythritol, some concern exists around artificial sweeteners and their effects on children and young adults. Studies have linked diets with high levels of erythritol to weight gain in younger people.

Losing Weight and Keeping it Off

Achieving your long-term weight loss goals is no easy task. It is going to take dedication and commitment, and a lot of help along the way. Sugar substitutes like erythritol can be useful for dropping calories or helping to manage the effects of diabetes, but replacing sugar in your diet is only part of the picture. 

If you are looking to reverse a years-long trend of weight gain, setting a solid diet and exercise  plan in motion will be crucial to starting down a new path to weight loss. For some people, this is not enough. When all other options are still not enough, it may be time to take the next step and consider a weight loss procedure that can help achieve your goals. Many of these procedures are less expensive, far less intrusive, and less traumatic on the body than traditional bariatric revisions. 

If you choose a weight loss procedure, there are consequences for your diet and lifestyle that could last the rest of your life. Finding a trusted partner who can help you understand your options, the potential risks and rewards, and what your life will look like afterwards is very important. At True You Weight Loss, we understand the risks and benefits associated with the many avenues to lasting weight loss. If you are ready to take the next step toward a healthier you, request a consultation today to get started.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan

Dr. Christopher McGowan, MD, a leader in endobariatrics, specializes in non-surgical obesity treatments and is triple-board-certified in Internal Medicine, Gastroenterology, and Obesity Medicine. Renowned for pioneering endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty (ESG) with over 2,000 procedures, his global influence and research contributions define him as a top expert.

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