Are artificial sweeteners better for you than real sugar?
I bet you know that eating too much sugar is bad for your health. Sugar added to any food product, such as baked goods, pop, cereals, granola bars and salad dressings, provides extra calories and promote inflammation. Unfortunately, added sugar is hidden in almost all grocery products! Scary, right?
When the fat-free craze hit, sugar exploded. By removing the fat, the products also lost most of their taste. So, to mask the blandness, food manufacturers started adding in sugar.
People gained weight and there was a sudden demand for low-calorie products. So, food manufacturers had to do something to maintain taste while producing foods with fewer calories.
Introducing the Artificial Sweeteners!
Artificial sweeteners provide the same sweet taste without all the added calories of real or refined sugar. The idea behind artificial sweeteners as a replacement for sugar was that people would be able to maintain or lose weight while still eating the same foods.
However, this isn’t exactly what happened…
Types of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are technically synthetic chemicals that taste sweet to most humans. Unless you’re me – then they taste ‘chemically’.
The 5 main “non-nutritive sweeteners” include:
- Saccharin (i.e. Sweet & Low)
- Acesulfame potassium (i.e. Sweet One)
- Aspartame (i.e. Equal & NutraSweet)
- Sucralose (i.e. Splenda)
(FYI – Added sugar comes in some of these terms: sucrose, glucose, glucose/fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol. Check food labels for these and avoid as much as possible.)
Health Effects of Artificial Sweeteners
Many studies cite the negative health effects from artificial sweeteners. On the other hand, many studies find artificial sweeteners to be safe. What can you believe? Cancer? Maybe yes, maybe no. Heart disease? Maybe yes, maybe no. Not to mention that much of the research has been on animals, which may or may not translate to people.
Ironically, artificial sweeteners can have the opposite effect on weight from what food manufacturers intended, too!
One study found that people who drink diet sodas have double the risk of gaining weight than those who didn’t. And, there is a potential positive correlation between aspartame intake and increased risk of developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
We think that zero calorie artificial sweeteners will help us lose weight but this isn’t the case. When you eat something sweet, your body reacts by releasing a neurotransmitter, dopamine, which activates your brain’s reward center. In response to sugar, your body also releases leptin, the hormone that tells you when you’re full.
However, with artificial sweeteners, dopamine is still released but leptin isn’t, so your brain never figures out that you’re full. Your brain never actually gets the energy (i.e. glucose) that it thinks it’s going to get, so you’re left craving more sweets and more carbs.
And, here’s another interesting study. A researcher worked with a woman who consumed a lot of aspartame and suffered from fibromyalgia. When she had to adjust her diet because aspartame wasn’t available (she traveled), her pain and symptoms disappeared. Hmmm, it’s things like this that make me think!
What about Stress?
Artificial sweeteners have zero nutritional value, yet they signal the pancreas to secrete insulin in response to what the body perceives to be sugar. Without actual glucose for the insulin to shunt to muscles and tissues, the body initiates our stress response.
Your body releases cortisol and adrenaline. Adrenaline signals for stored glucose and fatty acids to be released into the blood. Amino acids (or protein) are released from muscles and converted to glucose. What this really means is that chronic stress along with a high consumption of artificial sweeteners puts your body in a constant catabolic state. Your metabolism slows down and you’re unable to build strong muscles.
In effect, this is why people get fat from artificial sweeteners.
How do Artificial Sweeteners Affect our Bodies?
Well, for one, research has shown that artificial sweeteners increase appetite, cause metabolic dysfunction that leads to fat storage, and create even more cravings for carbs.
And, as we know, an unhealthy gut microbiome initiates all forms of distress and disease in the body. Researchers discovered that artificial sweeteners disrupt the gut microbiome and lead to gut dysbiosis. Dysbiosis then leads to glucose intolerance, which is the precursor to weight gain and Type II Diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners are also addictive. Many people have trouble giving up diet soda or artificially sweetened foods because their bodies create a reliance on them.
The Effects of Artificial Sweeteners on our Behavior
Whether or not artificial sweeteners affect you biologically, it’s possible that your eating behaviors change when you eat more artificially sweetened foods.
There is no scientific proof to any of this and everyone will react differently to different foods and non-foods.
But, could you feel like you can eat more cake, cookies or crackers because you’ve switched to diet soda? Or perhaps drink more hard liquor because your mix of choice is diet coke?
Maybe you eat a lot of artificially sweetened foods and beverages because the chemicals have changed your tastes buds. Now fruits don’t taste sweet to you and vegetables just taste bad. Therefore, you hardly eat any fresh produce anymore.
We know that added sugar is not good for us. But, is the solution to replace sugar with artificial sweeteners? No, it’s not.
Here’s one scary thought to leave you with – cancer cells feed and thrive off sugar. This, at least to me, is one major reason to quit as much added sugar as possible. And, reducing your overall sugar and sweetener intake will help to lessen your sweet tooth.
Retrain your palate to enjoy real, whole foods instead of the junk that comes in boxes or pre-baked for us. (You’re welcome to enjoy your own homemade treats on occasion – just watch the amount of sugar you’re adding.)
If you have a hard time eating fruits and vegetables, start adding in the sweeter options first. Sweet potatoes, grapes, watermelon and bell peppers can be a good substitute for sugar.
Reduce your sugar intake slowly. Because sugars and artificial sweeteners are addictive, cutting them out completely will cause withdrawal symptoms. Cut back from 1 tsp to ½ tsp of sugar or sweetener in your coffee. Look for your favorite packaged foods from a different brand with less sugar (check the Nutrition Facts label to compare).
If you still need a bit of sweetener, stevia is a pretty good option. Stevia is a naturally sweet leaf that is picked and processed into a powdered sweetener alternative. Limit you usage of white stevia since it’s typically processed. Liquid stevia or green stevia may be better options if you want to cut back as much processed sweeteners as possible.
Reduce your sugar and artificial sweetener intake to improve immunity, boost concentration and memory, lower cortisol and stress response, and help balance insulin and other hormones! Believe me; your body will thank you.