I’ve spoken several times about reducing the added sugars in your diet and the harms of consuming too much sugar. But does that mean you should replace all the added sugar you’re currently consuming with artificial sweeteners?
I haven’t yet dedicated a post to artificial sweeteners because they are such a controversial topic, and there’s so much conflicting research with no black and white answer. However, several of you have asked my opinion, and it’s such a prevalent topic (after all, the average American consumes up to 24 pounds of artificial sweeteners per year!), so here we go… (source)
- The jury is still out about artificial sweeteners causing cancer. When artificial sweeteners first took over the marketplace, there was concern that they may be linked to cancer. There are studies showing a positive correlation, studies showing no correlation, and some even showing a negative association (meaning that you’re less likely to get cancer if you eat more artificial sweeteners). The National Cancer Institute and other reputable agencies have declared the cancer connection to be untrue, and there are probably things that increase your cancer risk far more than artificial sweeteners. Still, it’s worth weighing the risk.
- However, there may be other health risks. Aside from the potential weight gain and insulin resistance that I’ll discuss in #3, artificial sweeteners may be addictive, and can also cause digestive issues, bloating, cramps, and gas. When I consumed a lot of Splenda, I didn’t think it had any negative reaction on my body, but when I cut out almost all artificial sweeteners, I noticed a huge difference in how my stomach felt.
- Aside from the health risks, it’s highly likely that artificial sweeteners may “trick” your body and cause less-than-ideal reactions. When you consume artificial sweeteners, your taste receptors notice sweetness, and your pancreas releases insulin (but it has nothing to “work on” since there is no real sugar present). Over time, spiking your insulin can lead to health complications like diabetes. Your taste receptors also send a message to your brain’s satiety sensors, which get confused and may lead you to crave even more sweet food. This is why some studies have shown that those who consume diet sodas gain more weight than those who consume regular sodas – their bodies are confused, and they end up craving (and eating) more sugary food to compensate.
- They are everywhere, so even if you don’t pour Splenda into your coffee, you’re probably getting more than you realize. Artificial sweeteners appear in many products marketed as “light,” “diet,” “sugar-free,” or “low sugar,” including yogurts, sauces, breads, energy bars, cereals, beverages, and so many more. Like I mentioned, I have made a conscious effort to eliminate some of the major sources of artificial sweeteners in my diet (for example, I switched from Light ‘n’ Fit yogurt to plain Greek yogurt a few years ago, and I now try to stray away from too many “diet” products in favor of natural, whole foods), but they definitely still pop up.
- In my opinion, stevia is a healthy alternative, since it’s not really an “artificial” sweetener. Stevia is a naturally occurring substance found in South America, and the leaves are ground up to form stevia powder, which has zero calories but is 250 times sweeter than regular sugar. Because it is completely natural, you aren’t putting additional chemicals in your body (like those contained in Splenda, Equal, and Sweet ‘n’ Low). This reduces any of the potential health risks for artificial sweeteners (#1 and #2 above), but you still deal with the issue of “tricking” your body (#3 above).
- The biggest sources of artificial sweeteners in my diet today are:
- Stevia packets: I drink unsweetened coffee, but on occasion, I will add a bit to sweetener it up. I also add it to my (previous) favorite breakfast, or sometimes sprinkle it on plain oatmeal.
- Liquid stevia: when I’m at home, I use a few drops to sweeten my yogurt, and I often use it in baking so I don’t need sugar. It’s incredibly powerful, so a few drops goes a long way!
- Energy bars: Many bars are sweetened with artificial sweeteners, and I try to avoid these all together. As a treat, I will have a Quest bar, which I love, but limit due to the less-than-ideal ingredient list. I choose the “all natural” line, which don’t contain any truly artificial sweeteners (some Quest bars not in the “all natural” line do contain sucralose. The natural ones are sweetened with stevia, erythritol, and Lo Han Guo).
- Zevia brand soda: I used to be a Diet Coke lover, but I now stay away due to #5. However, I still like a rum and “Diet Coke” every once in a while, so I often choose Zevia-brand sodas
- Gum: I would like to work on reducing my consumption sometime soon, but for now I often rely on gum to keep me from mindlessly munching while working
- (***Note that since this post has been published, I have 100% eliminated Powerade Zero***) Powerade Zero: I think this is my “worst” offense, because this stuff uses sucralose and several other chemicals, but I still consume it as an easy and delicious way to quickly replenish electrolytes after my hot Texas runs. When I’m not traveling, I consume about 1/5 of this bottle after almost every run.
- The bottom line is this: neither a ton of added sugar nor a ton of artificial sweeteners are healthy options. But within moderation, neither is the end of the world. To find what is right for you, listen to your body, and consider your goals. And, as always, ask me if you have any questions!
So tell me in the comments … what are your thoughts on artificial sweeteners?