Since the introduction of the artificial sweetener in the 1970s, it has been riddled with controversy. Artificial sweetener has been credited for helping with weight loss but also blamed for everything from headaches to death. In order to understand the potential pros and cons of artificial sweeteners, it is important to step back to the time of the caveman and talk a bit about how your body works.
We are designed to sustain life and reproduce. Pain is associated with death and pleasure is associated with life. That’s why fire hurts and sleep feels good. From a dietary standpoint, we enjoy food highest in nutrients and calories – i.e. fat, sugar, starches, etc. When we get enough of these nutrients, we have hormones to turn off our hunger and cravings, which leaves us feeling satisfied.
Enter the world of artificial sweeteners. The main idea behind the “sweetener” is so you can get the sweet fix without the calories. Genius idea … but unfortunately it has not worked.
- The American Cancer Society found that out of 78,000 women, 7.1% of those who used artificial sweeteners gained weight compared to non-users.
- A San Antonio Heart Study followed 3,700 adults over 8 years and found that those who consumed more artificial sweeteners had higher BMIs (Body Mass Index), and the more they consumed the higher their BMI.
How could something that has zero calories cause weight gain? There are 3 schools of thought:
- Artificial sugars increase sugar cravings. Your body associates calories with sweetness. When your body doesn’t get these calories, it becomes “starved” and causes you to eat more calories.
- They damage the food-reward pathway that drives our desire to eat. The sweetness without calories approach of artificial sweeteners can ultimately cause an increase in sweet cravings.
- Artificial sweeteners are thousands of times sweeter than sugar. With regular artificial sweetener use, our body gets used to the flavor and isn’t satisfied until it finds this level of sweetness. Unfortunately, this can’t be found in regular food, leaving us unsatisfied and prone to overeating.
Artificial sweeteners have been linked to everything from headaches to depression to cancer. Now, I could find just as many well-funded studies that say artificial sweeteners have absolutely no negative repercussions and encourage weight loss. The point of this article is not to scare you or bash an industry, but rather increase your awareness of what you are putting in your body.
The first step is to know when you are ingesting artificial sweeteners. First, if a product says zero sugars or calories and is not water, it most likely contains an artificial sweetener. Second, check the label. Look for the following artificial sweeteners: Saccharin, Aspartame, Sucralose, Acesulfame K or Neotame.
If you have any concerns, try taking artificial sweeteners out of your diet for a month and see what happens. Do you still have sugar cravings? Did you lose weight? Do you still have headaches? You are the best judge of the way something impacts your body. You may find that nothing changes, or you may be surprised that what you turned to for a calorie-free sweet fix may in fact be the very thing that was sabotaging your diet.
Stay tuned for Tara’s next column with advice about natural sweetener alternatives …
Tara Coleman is a Clinical Nutritionist in San Diego, CA. She blogs twice a month with “Tara’s Friday Bite.” Leave us your comments with ideas for future topics or email Tara directly firstname.lastname@example.org.