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Are sugar substitutes bad for you? Nutrition experts weigh in on the latest science

The World Health Organization warned against using artificial sweeteners. Should you give them up?

People trying to lose weight should steer clear of artificial sweeteners, the World Health Organization advises.

That recommendation is based on a review of existing studies, which “suggest some minor weight loss in the short term,” says Jason Montez, a WHO scientist in the department of nutrition and food safety. “Additionally, the evidence suggests an increased risk of diet related noncommunicable diseases (such as diabetes and heart disease) with long-term use.”

Still, the data upon which the recommendation was based isn’t perfect, Montez tells TODAY.com in an email. Even the randomized controlled studies had limitations, he adds.

The WHO recommendations excluded people with diabetes who are trying to keep their blood sugar low from their advisory.

Does that mean people should give up their artificially sweetened drinks?

Not necessarily, but heavy users might want to cut back, experts say.

“This was a very, very interesting advisory,” Julia Zumpano, RD, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition tells TODAY.com. “I’ve seen people benefit in the short term, but the question is, are they sustaining weight loss long term?"

Also, Zumpano says, it’s important to remember that the new recommendations don’t apply to everyone. “Even the WHO says this advisory doesn’t apply to those with existing diabetes who are using these beverages for blood sugar control,” she adds.

Right now, there isn’t evidence supporting a role for artificially sweetened beverages in aiding in long term weight loss, Zumpano says, adding “we need more studies to see how and if they are beneficial.”

Zumpano isn’t concerned about people who consume one artificially sweetened beverage a day. “But if it’s seven to 10 a day, I would consider that to be over consumption,” she explains.

One way to get around the problem of overconsumption is to dilute these drinks with water, Zumpano says.

Some experts fear that when people regularly drink artificially sweetened beverages, their sweet tooth becomes more demanding. “You end up having more of a craving for sweets and that it not good,” Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, an assistant professor with the Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles and a senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center tells TODAY.com.

“From my perspective, the less you consume these the better,” Hunnes says. “I’d rather see people having soda water with some lemon or lime juice to doll it up. That can be delicious.”

The sweet taste can tap into a person’s reward system, Dr. Gitanjali Srivastava, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and co-director of the Vanderbilt Weight Loss Clinics tells TODAY.com. “If you feel you have to sweeten foods or beverages, you need to make wise choices,” she adds. “You should limit portions or try more natural alternatives, such as a dash of honey or raw sugar,” she says.

While it’s important to keep hydrated, “it’s probably not good to be chugging down several cans of diet soda each day,” Srivastava says. “Consuming diet soda once in a while or even once a day would be OK.”

People just assume that because there aren’t any calories in drinks flavored with artificial sweeteners, that these products are good for you, Dr. Reshmi Srinath, an associate professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and medical director of the Mount Sinai Weight and metabolism management program tells TODAY.com.

“So these guidelines are needed,” she says. “In general you want to get sweetness from natural sources rather than non-nutritive sweeteners.”

It’s challenging to give advice “because we don’t have enough data on what the risks of consuming these products is,” Srinath says. “So it’s an interesting time and place for these guidelines.”