Whether you are tracking your macros, trying to eat less sugar, or watching your caloric intake in any way it may seem like a no brainer to choose to sweeten your meals and drinks with an artificial sweetener. Artificial sweeteners give you the sweetness you are craving and they come at the cost of ZERO CALORIES… why wouldn’t you be using them daily?! According to Harvard Health, the American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) have even made statements that the use of artificial sweeteners (instead of sugar) can help combat the problems of obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and risk factors for heart disease. From the sound of it, there really is no down side to the use of these sweeteners… except there is. I always go with the saying “if it seems like it’s too good to be true, it probably is”, and just like everything else in the world, there is always a negative side to things.
The FDA has only approved five artificial sweeteners for use in the products we buy: accharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. Besides these artificial sweeteners, there are also other kinds of “sugar substitutes” that are used in many of the foods and drinks we consume daily. There are also sugar alcohols (Erythritol, Xylitol, Sorbitol), novel sweeteners (Stevia, Truvia), and natural sweeteners (agave nectar, date sugar, molasses, maple syrup). Even these substitutes, some that claim to be “all natural”, are processed and refined. Your body will respond differently to each of these sweeteners and they have a complex effect on your body and brain. There are a few concerns associated with sugar substitutes:
- You may replace your calories with other food or drink choices, even if it’s subconscious. It’s the common story you hear of someone getting a large fry because they ordered a Diet Coke… we use this as a way to justify making unhealthy choices just because we made a “healthy” choice, too.
- Artificial sweeteners may change the way we taste. Because artificial sweeteners are so potent, it only takes a very small amount to create the same amount of sweetness we taste in regular sugar. This could increase your tolerance to sweet foods and cause other foods you eat to taste less sweet.
- I’m sure you’ve heard before that using artificial sweeteners actually makes you crave sweets MORE! The reason this is a concern is due to the fact that they have sweetness with no caloric intake – your body begins to disassociate sweetness with calories, causing us to choose sweet foods over more nutritious foods, and therefore gain weight.
- It could be addictive. Certain studies with rats that have been exposed to cocaine have shown that the rats will actually choose oral sweeteners over injectable cocaine! Scary!!
- Digestive issues, like water retention and bloating, are also common with artificial sweeteners. Depending on your body, you could have digestive symptoms with as little at 10g of sugar alcohol! The majority of people will have symptoms with 50g or more. In these amounts, sugar alcohols have a laxative effects and can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. When I have asked clients to cut out artificial sweeteners, they have lost 4-5 lbs in a week and felt so much better with more energy!
If you are trying to reduce your intake of artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes, check the labels of your food and drinks for all of the substitutes mentioned above. Watch out for labels that say, “sugar free” or “low sugar”, as these typically have a TON of sugar substitutes in them. Fill your plates with whole nutritious foods to make sure you are getting your macro and micronutrients in. Foods with natural sugars, like fruits, can help fulfill your sweet tooth while feeding your body with vitamins and fiber! As with everything I write about, moderation is key. Having some sugar substitutes will not cause you to have all of the negative side effects, but you want to make sure you are not taking in too much.
Photography: Mike Zuch, Zuch Photography