Artificial Sweeteners – To use or Not to use?

Recently I received a great question that many of you may also be questioning. So I figured why not share it with you!

Question: Are sugar substitutes really ok to use to cut calories and sugar intake, and what about diet sodas are they ok? All of the information I’m hearing makes it sound as if they are almost poison!

Answer: According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, sugar substitutes can safely help reduce calories even in diet sodas. However, having a little more information can help you make your day to day decisions on the subject. We also need to realize that we all have our own preferences and a lifetime of habits – and with anything moderation is key.

Did you know we are born with an innate preference for sweet foods? As we grow into young adults and finally adulthood, this preference decreases, however, for many it remains strong throughout our lives. In and of itself liking sweet foods is not a bad thing. The problem comes from too much, too often.

Today food is highly available almost anywhere and we are constantly bombarded with images, advertisements and smells of calorie-dense foods. To top off the increase in added calories, we have more and more reasons to sit, rather than move. So when the voice on the other side of the box asks, “Would you like a cold, refreshing beverage with that?” You may want to pause a moment to think, not just about how good a cold beverage would taste – but also what it may be adding to your waistline.

This is where some of you may be thinking, this is why I choose diet drinks over sugar sweetened beverages. But maybe you are one of the people who would never drink such a thing or may you heard that artificial sweeteners are bad for your health. Before we get too far into the discussion of should we replace sugar with artificial sweeteners or not, why not take a few moments to look at your personal habits with a true or false quiz:

  • I crave sweets all the time. T F
  • I do not like the taste of water. T F
  • I drink less than 64 oz of water daily. T F
  • I am always thinking about food. T F
  • I am currently trying to lose weight. T F

If you answered true to two or more of these questions, pay special attention, as you may be especially susceptible to those factors.

Artificial sweeteners – taste sweet, but contain little to no calories. The best of both worlds, right? Not necessarily. There are claims that artificially sweeteners may not actually be as helpful as we once thought.  So let’s take a look at the claims and decide which side of the fence you fall on.

Reasons to use

  • They replace high calorie drinks:
    Americans consume approximately 25 percent of their daily calories from beverages. For most people, this would mean that they drink 450-625 calories each day. Therefore, if you replace all caloric-containing beverages with beverages that provide no calories, you would decrease your total calorie intake for the day. Easy.
  • They provide a sweet taste with little-to-no calories:
    Some people find that enjoying a no/low calorie sweetened treat at the end of the day is a relaxing way to enjoy a sweet flavor without an enormous load of calories. Instead of eating ice cream while watching television, they will sip on an artificially sweetened beverage or replace their regular sweet dessert with a lower calorie artificially sweetened one.  
  • They can increase fluid consumption for people who don’t like water:
    Consuming adequate fluids is essential to health and can help prevent snacking due to thirst. Some people find that adding a small amount of an artificially sweetened beverage or flavoring to their water helps increase the amount of fluid they consume, therefore, preventing dehydration and unnecessary eating.

Reasons not to use

  • Constant sweet flavor drives cravings for sweets:
    Frequently consuming artificially sweetened beverages or foods can drive your desire to have something sweet. If you are someone who “craves” sweets all day, you may benefit from a “sweet detox.” This means you take one week away from all sweets/treats. Try eating whole foods only. If it doesn’t grow from the ground, swim in the ground or walk on the ground, don’t eat it. Drink plain water only or tea without any sweetener (artificial or sugar). Our taste buds and desire to eat certain foods can be reset fairly quickly and often times a “sweet detox” can help decrease those sweet cravings.
  • “Numbs” taste buds decreasing flavor from healthy foods:
    Artificial sweeteners are 100-400 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar). By constantly overwhelming our taste buds with this highly intense sweetness, healthy foods begin to taste bland. Which means a simple glass of water, fresh vegetables or even a strawberry wouldn’t be as enjoyable without added sweetness. And shouldn’t we be eating more of these kinds of foods? Then if these healthy choices aren’t as appealing it will most likely cause us to make more high fat/high salt food choices at the end of the day.
  • Theory – drinking artificially sweetened beverages can cause you to eat more:
    An interesting study conducted on rodents showed those fed saccharin (an artificial sweetener) actually gained weight compared to those fed sugar. Scientists speculate that because you are taking in something with a sweet flavor without any calories, there is a disconnect between your brain and your body. The theory is that your brain will then set you up to seek out the calories that it didn’t find in that sweetened beverage, therefore, eating more calories throughout the day. But this is only a theory and the many studies that have been done to prove and or disprove it still can’t answer the question.

Conclusion

So those are some of the claims on artificial sweeteners. Now think about your own personal preferences for sweets and healthy foods. Our lives change frequently and there is no “right” answer to how artificially sweetened foods and beverages affect you. Weight-loss and maintenance always comes down to the math of calories in – calories out. Therefore, reaching for a sugar-laden drink, loaded with calories, isn’t always a wise choice; however, assuming an artificially sweetened one is safe is not always accurate either. As is true with all things, enjoy in moderation!

Going back to the cold, refreshing beverage question, remember the ideal beverage is readily available, cheap and healthly. You guessed it…water! However, when the time comes when water just isn’t cutting it and you need a little variety, try flavoring naturally. Lemons, limes, oranges, raspberries, cucumbers and mint all add a nice flavor to water. Keeping it simple by using natural ingredients will actually get you the best of both worlds; a little variety, but with natural ingredients that your body can easily break down and digest.

Resources:
This article was adapted from Artificially Sweetened Beverages– Friend or Foe? You be the judge.by Cassie Truran, RD, CWC from the Obesity Action Coalition

  • Use of Nutritive and Nonnutritive Sweeteners – Position of the Academy of Nutrition and DieteticsJ Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112:739-758. http://www.eatright.org
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