How bad are artificial sweeteners?
You probably know the negative health effects of eating too much sugar, especially “added sugars” like in sodas, candy, baked goods, and many commercially-available cereals, just to name a few. Added sugar is hiding just about everywhere in the grocery store.
Yes, ingesting refined sugar spikes your blood sugar and insulin, and increases your risk for a whole host of issues.
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 soda” 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…
Types of artificial sweeteners
Health effects 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)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
- Extracts from Stevia plant (Stevia)
Negative health effects from artificial sweeteners are cited all over the place, but the results are truly mixed.
- Cancer? Maybe yes, maybe no.
- Heart disease? Maybe yes, maybe no.
- And much of the research has been on animals, which may or may not even translate to people.
Bottom line: we don’t know!
How do artificial sweeteners affect our bodies?
That’s the million-dollar question!
There are so many ideas out there to try to explain it, but the reality is we don’t know for sure; plus, it might play out differently in different people.
- Maybe artificial sweeteners increase our cravings for more (real) sweets?
- Or maybe, people feel they can eat more cake because they are drinking diet soda?
- Perhaps it’s because the artificial sweeteners change our taste preferences so that fruit starts to taste worse, and veggies taste terrible?
- Or it could be physiologic effect of the sweeteners, where the sweet taste signals 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, to the point where we get sugar cravings.
- Some even say that saccharin may inspire addictive tendencies toward it.
- Maybe there is even a more complex response that involves our gut microbes and how they help to regulate our blood sugar levels.
Understand that added sugar is not good for you, but the solution may not be to replace them all with artificial sweeteners. The jury is honestly still out. But, as a naturopathic doctor I can’t in good conscience recommend that you switch from sugar to artificial sweeteners.
Instead, I recommend you reduce your sugar intake, so you naturally re-train your taste buds to start enjoying the taste of real food that isn’t overly sweet. This way you’re reducing your intake of added sugar, as well as not needing to replace it with artificial sweeteners.
- 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. Or sparkly water as we do in my house.
Your body will thank you!