Artificial Sweeteners: A Good Idea?

When I became pregnant for the second time, I decided to eliminate artificial sweeteners from my diet. No more Splenda in my coffee. No more Diet Coke. And I felt great about that decision. Even though the evidence has not yet demonstrated a definite risk, I just felt better about keeping my diet as natural as possible. Then, about halfway through my pregnancy I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes.

Yeah, I know, I was shocked too. (I’m not overweight and I totally don’t fit the profile, except for, ahem, advanced maternal age).

Anyway, I then found myself having to re-evaluate the decision about sugar vs. sweeteners. I’d been happy to cut out the artificial chemicals of aspartame and Splenda. But now I knew for sure that plain ol’ sugar was harmful to my developing baby. I had to choose between the devil I knew and the devil I didn’t. So…I decided to eliminate the thing I knew was harmful (sugar) in favor of the thing that was only possibly harmful (sweeteners).

And this is how it is with decisions. We have to make decisions based on the best available evidence. Which is by no means all the evidence that will ever come to light as research, of course, is ongoing. In generations to come, pregnant women with gestational diabetes may have the definitive answer on the sugar/sweetener conundrum. But that doesn’t help anyone in the here and now.

Anyway, I discussed it with my diabetes dietitian, and she suggested I stick with the sweeteners that are the least controversial. Specifically, Splenda (sucralose). This is exactly what I did.

Now that I’m not pregnant, and my gestational diabetes has gone away, I’m free to consider my sugar-related options more openly.

Sugar is a contentious dietary issue that I’ve covered in the past. We crave sweetness, naturally, and I’m not one of those sugar-is-evil-must-eliminate-at-all-costs types. That being said, excess sugar is clearly not good for our health. As a solution to the sugar dilemma many people think: no problem. I’ll just have a sweetener instead, and that takes care of that.

But, sadly, it’s not so simple.

Recent studies have shown that people who drink even one diet soda a day have a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a precursor to heart disease and diabetes. More irritatingly perhaps, recent studies are showing that diet soda doesn’t even seem to help people lose weight.

Huh? How does that make sense? Here’s the current thinking on this paradox:

One problem is that people view diet soft drinks as a license to overindulge in other ways. I’m saving calories on my Coke, so I can order the burger and fries without guilt, right? Right?

Wrong.

There are other theories, too. The caramel flavoring in diet cola might reduce your body’s ability to process blood glucose at a molecular level. Another possibility to explain the research: it might be that people who are already overweight, and therefore at risk for diabetes and heart disease, are more likely to already be drinking that diet soda (in an attempt to lose weight).

What about sweeteners in general, not just in diet soda? Well, there’s some evidence that artificial sweeteners actually cause weight gain. This might be because all that sweetness actually fuels your sweet tooth. Making your brownie cravings that much worse. It looks like artificial sweeteners only help with weight loss if people can curb the urge to overcompensate by indulging in high-calorie foods. Which, alas, is not easy.

All told, I’m not really a fan of sweeteners anymore. Essentially, it doesn’t feel like “real food” to me. (As I keep saying to my 1-year old when he repeatedly attempts to put items like the TV remote in his mouth: “not food, sweetheart”) And if there isn’t really a health advantage anyway, what’s the point? 

Me, I think I’ll stick to limited amounts of real sugar.

You?

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6 Comments on “Artificial Sweeteners: A Good Idea?

  1. I’m with you, Dr. Kim. Although there’s no real evidence to suggest artificial sweeteners are dangerous, I figure a couple of teaspoons of the “real stuff” in my twice-daily coffee is certainly not going to hurt me. I used to use Splenda as well (an old girlfriend always had it around) but when I tried it again recently I found it really tasted artificial and “chemically” – something I don’t remember it doing before. As you said, it doesn’t taste like “real food.”

    So for a couple of teaspoons of sugar a day, why bother with a sweetener.

    • Definitely, a couple of teaspoons of sugar over the course of the day is not going to hurt you. Especially if you have an otherwise healthy lifestyle!

  2. This is such an interesting topic to me. I have been all over the map with sugar and sweetener. I have been severely addicted to sugar and addicted to diet coke- and now- I have lost my taste for sugar (besides berries) altogether. It is unbelievable to me, actually, that I do not want it or like the taste of very sweet things anymore (real or fake).

    I started out just wanting to cut out all fake things- and eat real food (sugar too) in order to get a true grasp of my real hunger and a true indulgence in my life-long denied cravings. Then slowly but surely- my taste and desire for sugar lessened. I have berries and dark chocolate- and complex carbs- but the cravings are gone!

    So- my vote is limited amounts of real sugar! (Allowed me to slowly realize I didn’t even want it)

  3. Pingback: My Gestational Diabetes « savvy health

  4. Pingback: How To Lose That Cursed Belly Fat « savvy health

  5. Pingback: All Natural? An Idiot’s Guide to Food Additives | Tasty Tufts

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