Shocking New Guidelines Warn Against Sugar Substitutes for Weight Loss and Disease Prevention


  • Sugar substitutes, like stevia and sucralose, are among the many that the WHO is advising against for weight loss and weight management.
  • Regularly using certain non-sugar substitutes in the long-term may even increase risk of developing certain chronic diseases.
  • Prioritize naturally occurring sugars from fruits and unsweetened foods and beverages.

Have you been reaching for those pink and blue sugar alternative packets to add to your morning coffee for years in an effort to lose weight or cultivate healthier habits? It’s something that you may want to now rethink.

Earlier last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new guideline recommending against the use of non-sugar sweeteners for weight loss and weight management. The guideline also addressed avoiding the use of non-sugar sweeteners to reduce the risk of noncommunicable diseases (think conditions caused by long-term health issues, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers and chronic lung illnesses).

The guidelines are not just directed towards adults — the WHO says that the recommendation also applies to children and pregnant and lactating women, but not to individuals with pre-existing diabetes. These recommendations are based off of an extensive review that suggested potential consequences of consuming sugar alternatives in the long-term. Among these negative effects noted in the review include increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and all cause mortality in adults.

What are non-sugar sweeteners?

According to the WHO, non-sugar sweeteners include, “all synthetic and naturally occurring or modified non-nutritive sweeteners that are not classified as sugars found in manufactured foods and beverages, or sold on their own to be added to foods and beverages by consumers.” Common non-sugar sweeteners that you may be familiar with include acesulfame K, aspartame, advantame, cyclamates, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia and stevia derivatives. Many of these alternatives can be hundreds of times sweeter than actual table sugar, which can significantly affect your taste buds.

Is table sugar better than non-sugar sweeteners?

Not necessarily. A few years ago, the WHO released guidelines on limiting traditional free sugar intake in an effort to reduce risk of unhealthy weight gain and dental issues. Since that guideline, there has been an uptick in utilizing non-sugar sweeteners as a substitute.

The original guidance was based on the fact that free sugars are typically found in ultra-processed foods and beverages with poor nutritional value. But replacing free sugars with non-sugar sweeteners in these highly-processed foods doesn’t improve the quality of your diet in any way. Instead, the WHO suggests substituting with naturally occurring sweetness that comes packaged with other beneficial nutrients, including fruits and minimally processed unsweetened foods and beverages that can help improve diet quality.

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“Replacing free sugars with non-sugar sweeteners does not help with weight control in the long term,” Francesco Branca, WHO Director for Nutrition and Food Safety, said in a public statement. “People need to consider other ways to reduce free sugars intake, such as consuming food with naturally occurring sugars, like fruit, or unsweetened food and beverages.” Branca also adds that these non-sugar sweeteners are not essential to the diet and provide no nutritional value. “People should reduce the sweetness of the diet altogether, starting early in life, to improve their health.”

Differences between natural and added sugars

All carbohydrates contain naturally occurring sugar, but these come packaged with a plethora of other beneficial nutrients including fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein and more. A typical serving of fruit contains about 15 grams of naturally occurring sugar. Similarly, an 8-ounce cup of milk is going to have about 12 grams of sugar.

Added sugars are literally added to a food and include everything from table sugar to corn syrup. The number one source of added sugar in the U.S. is sugar-sweetened beverages, which also do very little by way of satiety. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day, and men stay under 36 grams of added sugar per day (keep in mind that one teaspoon of sugar is about equal to 4 grams.)

What to do now

Prioritizing a diet packed with whole, real foods is key. When purchasing any packaged food, always read the label – the first few ingredients should be real, whole foods, not sugar or non-sugar sweeteners. Remember that manufacturers list ingredients by order of weight, – if you notice that sugar is the first one listed, it’s the main ingredient and you may want to think about grabbing another treat. You don’t have to cut out all sugar and non-sugar sweeteners from your diet, but on a regular basis try to enjoy nature’s candy – fruit – to get your sweet fix naturally.

And just keep in mind that weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects so before you decide to overhaul your eating patterns, we invite you to gain a broader perspective by reading our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.

The bottom line: Non-sugar sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose and stevia aren’t recommended if you’re trying to lose weight, manage your weight or reduce risk of chronic disease. Instead, prioritize naturally occurring sugars like those in fruit, and unsweetened food and beverages. Experts say the earlier, the better to start reducing sweetness of the diet altogether to improve overall health.

Headshot of Stefani Sassos, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.O., C.D.N., NASM-CPT

Nutrition Lab Director

Stefani (she/her) is a registered dietitian, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab, where she handles all nutrition-related content, testing and evaluation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. She is also Good Housekeeping’s on-staff fitness and exercise expert. Stefani is dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. She is an avid CrossFitter and a passionate home cook who loves spending time with her big fit Greek family.

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