Artificial sweeteners have been in the news quite a bit lately, and I’ve had several people ask about them recently. While I’ve never loved the idea of consuming lots of foods with artificial sweeteners in them, I’ve always taken the stance that they are a “lesser of two evils” for individuals who have a preference for sweets and a hard time cutting out sugar, and they’re OK if used in moderation. I'm pretty sure my idea of moderation is different than that of most typical Americans though, and after reviewing the research that's out there, I'm going to be pushing the M word more than ever.
What does the research show?
A recent study out of Washington University School of Medicine suggested that the artificial sweetener sucralose (Splenda) may modify how the body handles sugar, and given the rising rates of diabetes and prediabetes in this country, it’s something worth paying attention to. Additionally, a review of research on artificial sweeteners found that people who regularly consume diet soft drinks are at higher risk for weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease as well as metabolic syndrome (a group of symptoms that puts people at risk for those conditions), than people who don’t drink sodas at all. In all fairness to the “Calorie Control Council” (the group that lobbies for the manufacturers of artificial sweeteners), it’s not clear if artificial sweeteners are a cause of the health problems, or if people who are overweight and at risk for those heath conditions are just drinking more diet soda to slow the train down.
A researcher from Purdue University has suggested that when artificial sweeteners are eaten for long periods, the hormonal changes that normally occur when eating sugar are disrupted and the body is confused– hormones that increase the feelings of fullness and satisfaction aren’t triggered, the calories consumed don’t make you feel as full as they should, and as a result, individuals tend to eat more. Others have suggested that using artificial sweeteners tricks us into thinking we can eat more calories elsewhere – “I’ll have the Big Mac, large fries and a diet Coke please”.
Everyone agrees that more research needs to be done, but whatever the mechanism, one thing is clear. We are far too addicted to sugar, and we need to stop! Eating and drinking more artificially sweetened foods isn't going to help anyone lose weight or get healthier. Everyone’s taste buds can and should be retrained to prefer foods that are less sweet. I’m not saying that we can’t have the occasional sweet treat, but it needs to be occasional, not a part of every meal, snack and beverage.
What should you do?
- Start by cutting the amount of sugar you add to your coffee in half. It may take a few days, but I promise you, by the end of two weeks, you will be fine.
- Feel free to add a teaspoon of brown sugar to your cereal, but add it to plain oatmeal or bran flakes. Not sweet enough? Add some fruit.
- Take a break from diet soda and drink water or seltzer for one month. Don't worry, it will still be there if you need it after a month.
- Switch to a bowl of fresh fruit for dessert or instead of a sweet snack.
- If you must have a food or beverage with artificial sweetener in it, limit it to one serving per day.
If you work on breaking the “sweet cycle” for one month, you will be surprised at how good you feel, and how little you miss all of that added sugar. I also highly recommend reading the book Salt, Sugar, Fat, by Michael Moss to better understand how any why so many of us feel that we are "addicted" to sugar and sweet foods.
Think about making this a healthy eating challenge, and let me know how you do!