Get the SKINNY on Artificial Sweeteners

Sugar and its role in our diet has become a topic riddled with controversy. Many point to sugar for rising rates of obesity and diabetes. Not only has our intake of sugar increased but our intake of artificial sweeteners as well.  What does this mean for our overall health?

People are born with a natural inclination toward sweet tastes.  Snacks high in added sugar are accessible and affordable. When high-sugar foods replace more nutritionally balanced foods in the diet, problems such as tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, hypertension and osteoporosis, as well as vitamin and mineral deficiencies abound.

Artificial sweeteners are a popular alternative to sugar, especially for people with diabetes and those wanting to lose weight.  As many as 180 million Americans routinely eat and drink these so called sugar-free products. However, the true value of “zero-calorie” sweeteners for weight control has been questioned.

Artificial sweeteners can affect how we taste food. They are anywhere from 30 to 8,000 times sweeter than sugar, contributing sweetness to foods in extremely small amounts. An overstimulation of sugar receptors may limit tolerance for more complex tastes. People who routinely use artificial sweeteners may find less sweet foods, such as vegetables, unpalatable.

Research also suggests that they may prevent people from associating sweetness with caloric intake, creating a cycle where a person craves more sweets and chooses sweet foods over more nutritious foods, resulting in weight gain. Participants in the San Antonio Heart Study who drank more than 21 diet sodas per week were twice as likely to become overweight or obese as people who did not drink diet soda. It has been hypothesized that these artificial sweeteners may be as addictive as table sugar.

Artificial sweeteners on the market include (by trade name) Sunett, Sweet One, Equal, Nutrasweet, Neotame, SugarTwin, Sweet’N Low and Splenda. Products that contain artificial sweeteners include “diet” beverages, “sugar-free” products, chewing gum, jellies, baked goods, candy, fruit juice, ice cream and yogurt. The facts about the safety of these chemicals are not clear-cut and there are factions in the medical community for and against their use. We really do not know what effect frequent consumption of these chemicals may have on our bodies over many years.

For most, it’s best to treat artificial sweeteners and sugar as equals and limit consumption of both.

Tips

1. When choosing sugar substitutes look beyond the hype. They may help with weight management but they are not a solution without side effects and should be consumed in moderation.

2. The healthiest beverage choice is water! Don’t dig it? Try sparkling water with a spritz of juice or decaf unsweetened tea to stay hydrated.

3. Just because a product is marketed as “sugar-free” does not mean it is free of calories, carbohydrates or fat. Read the nutrition label. Eating too many of these products can still raise blood sugar levels and contribute to weight gain.

4. The best foods for you are always REAL foods. Eat whole foods such as vegetables, beans, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, dairy and meat to feel satisfied all day long.

5. Practice portion control to manage your weight and overall health for the long term.

What do you think about artificial sweeteners? Leave a comment!

Kelsey M. Whalen is a dietetic intern at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is passionate about enjoying a healthy lifestyle and helping others to do the same.

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Our Be Fit Nutritionists are comprised of dietetic interns studying at Massachusetts General Hospital. During their internship, they receive training on acute care nutrition, ambulatory and community nutrition, food service systems management, and research. Their comprehensive work is done in collaboration with registered dietitians.

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