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?
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.