What’s my deal with artificial sweeteners???
[Brief trigger warning for the following paragraph.]
I gained weight in college. Like, more than the Freshman 15. Having been naturally thin my whole life, I was shocked by the rapid weight gain and felt like I was trapped in someone else’s body. It gave me a sort of identity crisis. I found the motivation to return to my normal weight immediately so I could feel like “myself” again. Being clueless about nutrition, my initial response was to turn to commercial “diet food.”
[Trigger warning over.]
First, let’s talk health.
There are tons of debate over the dangers of artificial sweeteners. Do they cause cancer? Do they truly assist with weight loss? Are they addictive? For the history of artificial sweeteners, check out this comprehensive Fooducate post.
This is my take on it: any food that clocks in at zero calories is suspicious to me (excluding water, of course). Have you seen those zero-calorie Walden Farms products? Ain’t nothing natural about that. No shocker: these products usually contain Splenda. And a million other chemicals.
During my sophomore year of college, as I desperately tried to shed the dozens of excess pounds I had gained the year before, I had a Coke Zero (sometimes two) every day. I ate low-calorie Yoplait yogurt (sweetened artificially). I ate Quaker “Weight Control” oatmeal packets (sweetened artificially). My mom bought Sam’s Club-sized boxes of Splenda packets and we sprinkled them on everything. Everything.
But then I learned the truth. Regardless of whether or not these products actually cause cancer is up in the air, but I read enough to convince me to quit. I wanted to go all-natural. All homemade. All unprocessed. My aspartame-filled Coke Zero was accompanied with caramel color and other artificial crap. That “Orange Crème” Yoplait Light was held together by stabilizers and chemicals (they have since redone their recipe to be aspartame-free–progress!).
By indulging in articifial sweeteners–regardless of how “safe” they may or may not be–I was partaking in an industry that is anything but natural. What would help me lose weight healthily: Coke Zero, or apples?
This should come as no shock to anyone, but eating a diet rich in fruits and veggies helped me return to my regular weight better than those Coke Zeros did, and with the added benefit of fabulous doses of essential vitamins and fiber.
I gained energy from natural calories, not from caffeine. Calories are not the devil.
I do believe artificial sweeteners are addictive.
When I decided to quit artificial sweeteners cold
turkey Tofurkey, I felt the withdrawals immediately. I had never experienced a migraine before, but a few days after cutting every single source of artificial sweetener from my diet (some sources claim they exist in around 600 products!), I suffered piercing headaches for nearly a week.
This phenomenon is not uncommon: a quick Google search reveals that many Splenda-quitters experience blinding and insufferable headaches, in addition to other withdrawal symptoms.
My week of migraines was enough motivation for me to switch to an unsweetened life. What kind of chemicals had I been poisoning my body with? From that point on, my food gained its flavor from real foods. Fruits. Vegetables. A dash of salt and pepper. Fresh herbs. Real flavor enhancers.
If it’s so dangerous, why is it allowed on American shelves?
If you’re at all familiar with politics, particularly food politics, the following will come as no surprise:
Aspartame gained FDA approval while it was owned by Donald Rumsfeld, who was at that time the CEO of the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Company. Rumsfeld earned millions of dollars by marketing the product as NutraSweet, and when medical research into the product confirmed the risk of brain tumors, Rumsfeld simply hired another FDA board member to overturn the ban that the current board had inflicted. (Global Healing Center)
This is common practice across almost all government agencies. Although the FDA and similar agencies are designed to protect consumers and regulate the industry, conflicts of interest are rampant and decisions about what is “safe” and “not safe” are greatly compromised . . . and usually not in our favor. (This is particularly true in the United States; other countries are far more advanced in this regard.)
But aren’t some sweeteners (like stevia) natural?
Did you know that most artificial sweeteners are intensely more sweet than actual sugar? Stevia, for example, is considered 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar. This may not seem like that much of a problem at first glance. After all, that means you can use less of it. But here’s the problem:
Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes,” explains Dr. [David] Ludwig. That means people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable. (Harvard Health Publications)
This means the more Diet Coke you drink, the more Spenda-sweetened oatmeal you consume, and the more stevia-spiked frozen yogurt you lick, the less appealing that humble plum will be to your taste buds. People who have given up sweeteners of any kind tend to enjoy fruits and vegetables more than those who have not because their taste buds are sensitive and can pick up on the subtle (natural!!!) flavors of roasted asparagus or juicy cherries. Andy Bellatti, M.D., says:
These chemicals (along with vague “flavor enhancers”, as is the case with Pepsi Next) assault our taste buds and accustom them to extreme flavors that can never be replicated by real food. It’s part of the reason why whole, minimally processed foods — even when prepared well — “lack a punch” to many people, leading them to seek out foods high in added sugars. [Read more here.]
It is for this reason that I have eschewed stevia, despite my suspicion that it may in fact be “safe” and “natural.” I like my taste buds the way that they are. Avoiding stevia means avoiding overstimulation of my taste receptors, and that’s the way I like it.
But isn’t sugar unsafe, too?
You bet it is. As someone with IBS, sugar is toxic to my sensitive system. While some view a brownie as a fun occasional treat, I view it as a square of thistles that will tear my intestines to shreds. Many foods trigger an unpleasant reaction from my stomach, but none are worse than sugar.
When I add maple syrup to my oatmeal, I am hyperaware of the consequences. I am hyperaware that any sweetener (refined table sugar or maple syrup or honey) will have negative effects on the body, especially mine.
Because of this, I am more likely to use the absolute minimum amount to achieve the desired result.
A teaspoon of maple syrup on top of my oatmeal will hardly affect my sensitive stomach, and the health benefits of the oatmeal itself will–I hope–counteract any negative effects of the small amount of sweetness I added.
When ripping open a Splenda packet, it’s easy to feel a false sense of safety while emptying its calorie-free contents on your oatmeal, but a real sweetener carries a heavier burden. You know you’re adding something with empty calories. You know that sugar is not good for you. This may not hold true for everyone, but using real sweeteners definitely helped me keep my sugar intake in check (aka, that every popular nutritional buzzword: in “moderation”).
Have a great weekend!