By Theresa Woodard, MD, internal medicine practitioner at Harbor of Health
The temptation to use artificial sweeteners is easy to understand: They have way fewer calories than sugar – in some cases zero calories – but still sweeten everything from your morning coffee to the baked goods, yogurts, diet sodas, etc. you buy at the store.
Considering your average American consumes around 350 calories of sugar every day, it seems like an easy fix to substitute products like Equal, Splenda or Sweet ‘N Low if you’re trying to lose weight or keep your blood sugar in check.
But like with so many things when it comes to health and well-being, the word “moderation” is an important one.
To be clear, there is no conclusive research linking artificial sweeteners to serious health issues.
The medical community has found no proven link to cancer, but also hasn’t ruled one out.
Artificial sweeteners have been tested for ties to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome and related diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but for every study showing a possible link, another finds no association.
My basic advice for patients is actually a question: Why risk it?
That question is especially important when you consider artificial sweeteners seem to be a bad bet when it comes to accomplishing health goals. Specifically, if your motivation for using artificial sweeteners is to lose weight, you might not be doing yourself any favors.
In the short-term, these products might help you drop a few pounds, but studies actually show a link between artificial sweetener intake and obesity in the long-term.
I have personally found people get dependent on the extreme sweet taste sweeteners offer, so it then becomes difficult to cut them out of your diet. These sweeteners are way more potent than natural sugars, so overuse can change how you taste food.
Eventually, naturally sweet foods like fruit seem less appealing because they aren’t sweet enough. Foods that aren’t sweet in the first place, like veggies, might completely turn you off.
Also, too many people rationalize that if they’re having a “diet drink,” then it’s okay to eat more, or have dessert, or “super-size” their order – all things that inevitably lead to more calories and weight gain, not weight loss.
What’s more, artificial sweeteners are not broken down like natural sweeteners, so many can’t be used for energy. Therefore, they don’t provide nutrients that fuel the body during exercise, nor do they help you recover from training or working out.
Bottom line, these products are chemicals made in a laboratory – and that almost automatically makes them inferior to whole foods that can fill you up, provide your body with nutrients, and help you stay on track for weight loss and good overall health.
Here’s what I suggest to my patients when they ask about using artificial sweeteners:
- It’s okay on occasion, but don’t use them so often that it’s hard to drop them.
- When you’re thirsty and don’t want to add calories, water is always the best, most hydrating choice. If adding a slice of lemon, lime, cucumber, etc. helps, even better!
- You can use natural sweeteners in moderation. Real sugar – or, better, options like honey or agave – are fine if you don’t overdo it.
- Keep tasty natural snacks and drinks on hand. Some of my go-to choices are fresh or dried fruits, nuts, hummus, tea (iced or hot) and sparkling water with a dash of juice.
I’d love to talk with you about how you use artificial sweetener and help you cut back to reach or maintain a healthy weight and meet your health and wellness goals.