Sugar is very addictive to the brain, and we all have heard that some studies have even shown that it is more addictive than cocaine!? We know that a diet high in sugar leads to impaired insulin sensitivity, the hormone responsible to maintain a normal blood sugar, and eventually insulin resistance, known as diabetes.
But what about artificial sweeteners would you ask? A while ago, one of the food industry’s responses to the demand for lower-calorie foods that still taste great, was artificial sweeteners.
The idea behind them is that you can still get the sweetness, without the calories; like when you have a “diet pop” versus a regular one. Theoretically, this was going to help people maintain a healthy body weight, and hopefully not increase anyone’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, or obesity.
But, it doesn’t always work out the way we think it will...
Let’s now look at the types of artificial sweeteners and their health effects in more details.
Types of artificial sweeteners
Sugar substitutes fall into several categories, but what they all have in common is that they have a sweet taste and fewer calories than plain sugar.
Today we'll specifically discuss "artificial sweeteners," which are synthetic chemicals where a tiny bit tastes very sweet.
They're also known as "non-nutritive sweeteners," and include things like:
Saccharin (Sweet & Low),
Aspartame (Equal & NutraSweet),
Health effects of artificial sweeteners
Negative health effects from artificial sweeteners are cited all over the place, and while many studies show effects, others don't. 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.
I did want to point out one ironic thing, to do with artificial sweeteners and weight. One study found that people who tend to drink diet sodas have double the risk of gaining weight than those who didn't. Another study has shown an increased risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes for those who consume diet drinks every day.
Not only did it fail at solving the American obesity epidemic since their insertion in the food industry in the 1980s, but it is now considered to cause “diabetes of the brain” – by that I mean they increase the chance of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis!?
As you can see, the risks of consuming artificial sweeteners on a regular basis are quite alarming.
How do artificial sweeteners affect our bodies?
There are so many ideas out there to try to explain it, but the reality is that the way it acts in the body is rather complex, and it might play out differently in different people.
Some possible explanations are:
People might feel that they can eat cake/desserts/pastries because they switched to diet soda;
Artificial sweeteners might change the taste preferences so that fruit starts to taste worse, and veggies terrible;
Artificial sweeteners might increase our cravings for more (real) sweets;
The sweet taste of these sweeteners might signal to our body to release insulin to lower our blood sugar; but, because we didn’t actually ingest sugar, our blood sugar levels get too low, causing more sugar cravings;
Artificial sweeteners, saccharin among others, may inspire addictive tendencies toward it;
There may be a complex interaction between the gut microbes and how they help to regulate blood sugar levels.
The most plausible explanation is that artificial sweeteners disrupt the gut microbiome to create more sweet cravings than the sugar-full versions, hence leading to all/some of the consequences mentioned above, creating a positive feedback loop towards more sweet foods ingested!
How to avoid artificial sweeteners?
I recommend going “cold turkey” on this one! Cut the kryptonyte out now!
A more gentle approach is to avoid artificial sweeteners and slowly reduce your sugar intake. For example, try having ½ teaspoon less of sugar in your hot morning drink. Try reducing a ¼ cup of the sugar called for in some recipes. Try diluting juice with water.
But, knowing that natural sweeteners, like honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, are not necessarily better for your health because they are nutrient-poor foods that quickly raise your insulin and can create blood sugar dysregulations, you might want to look at other options if you are missing the sweet taste.
Consider these sweet-tasting substitutes:
Sugar alcohols, for example xylitol, maltitol, sorbitol or erythritol: sugar alcohols are naturally occurring in fermented fruits and don’t raise insulin levels and might be beneficial for your good intestinal bacteria
Stevia: stevia is extracted from plant leaves and does not have any impact of insulin and it is about 300 times sweeter than table sugar
Fruit purees: make applesauce, berries compote, and dates paste to use in recipes as a replacement for sugar
Also, you want to check your workouts supplements that are often sweetened with artificial sweeteners like sucralose, as well as read the labels for your energy/protein bars, which most likely than not will have brown rice syrup as the first or second ingredient!?
Understand that added sugar is not good for you, but the solution may not be to replace them all with artificial sweeteners.
I highly recommend reducing your sugar intake, so you re-calibrate your palate and start enjoying the taste of real food that isn't overly sweet. This way you are reducing your intake of added sugar, as well as not needing to replace it with artificial sweeteners. Your body will thank you!
If sweet cravings is your downfall and you can’t seem to avoid this health-sabotaging habit, consider joining the Nutrition & Lifestyle Reset program! Controlling your blood sugar and managing your carbohydrates intake is one of the health-promoting habits that I coach people through implementing to bust weight loss resistance, recover from adrenal fatigue, and heal a leaky gut. Connect with me during a free assessment call for this opportunity!