Today, we are joined by Luci Crow, MS, RD, CLT and owner of Align Wellness Studio. Our question to her was about diet sodas and how they are impacting our health and possibly sabotaging some of our ability to lose weight. This blossomed into a bigger and more fascinating conversation on artificial sweeteners as a whole. We are sharing the highlights of this conversation today.
In recent years, there appears to be a paradigm shift taking place as more evidence is being presented about the health concerns related to consuming artificial sweeteners. Diet soda consumption has been linked to a variety of health problems including coronary heart disease, acid reflux, kidney dysfunction, cancer, depression, tooth erosion, weight loss and weight gain.
So that you understand my own history with diet sodas, they have been a part of my everyday life, as early as a preteen. My beloved overweight grandmother would serve me a TaB cola as a “good snack” after our usual Southern lunch of fried chicken, fried okra, mashed potatoes, homemade biscuits slathered with butter and cane syrup and, of course, sweet tea. I continued to drink diet sodas regularly, 1-3 per day, to “help” control my weight throughout my teen years. In my early forties I continued to drink diet sodas, although my consumption was considerably less, maybe 1-2 per week. These days, I rarely consume diet sodas simply because they no longer satisfy my taste or hydration needs and their release of carbon dioxide bubbles wreaks havoc on my tummy.
Today, I will share with you some of the current findings and questions surrounding the use of non-nutritive sugar substitutes:
- Americans consume roughly 4 billion gallons of artificially sweetened drinks per year, with annual revenues reported to be $10 billion in the US.
- According to the CDC, on any given day, 20% of the American population consumes an average of 12 oz or more of diet beverages.
- Artificial sweeteners are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Find the chart and brand names at: www.hsph.harvard.edu.
There is plenty of evidence to substantiate both the pros and cons of the effects that the use of artificial sweeteners may have on our well-being. Leading health organizations such as the American Heart Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and American Diabetes Association do support the safe and judicious use of artificial sweeteners. Let’s address some common questions.
Do diet sodas actually work against people trying to lose weight?
There is more and more evidence suggesting that people who consume diet sodas are actually heavier. Two studies emerging from the University of Texas Health Science Center found the use of artificial sweeteners may not be conducive to weight control.
In 2005, researchers found that the more diet soda a person drank, the higher the risk for becoming overweight or obese. For each diet soda the participants drank per day, their likelihood of becoming overweight was increased by 65%, and becoming obese by 41%.
In 2011, the same group conducted another study from the San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging. Over a 10-year period, 70% of the 474 participants, aged 65 years and older, had greater increases in waist circumference than non-diet soda drinks. High diet soda drinkers (2 or more per day) had waist circumference increases that were 500% greater than non-diet soda drinkers.
What’s going on here? Studies suggest there are a few reasons for this:
- Use of artificial sweeteners may promote overcompensation of other foods. One concern is that people who use artificial sweeteners think they are being “good” by drinking a diet soda, thus reducing their calorie intake. Later, they replace the lost calories through other sources, often high caloric options far exceeding the calories saved by drinking the diet soda. Therefore, people tend to overcompensate by splurging on sweetened snacks, beverages, or even just additional food amounts, which in turn packs on extra calories, causing weight gain, or more importantly, prohibiting weight LOSS.
- Artificial sweeteners may trick the brain into thinking it needs calories. The brain’s sweet receptors associate sweetness with calorie intake. Because artificial sweeteners prepare the brain to digest calories, but do not provide them, the brain gets thrown off, and begins to signal for more calories. These signals are those uncomfortable, well-known “strong cravings” that we’ve all experienced. When the brain gets confused in this particular way, it does not produce the normal signals that control eating behavior which may resulting in extra food intake to satisfy this false craving.
- Artificial sweeteners may be desensitizing the tastebuds. Artificial sweeteners are 100-600 times sweeter than sugar. These hyper-intense sweeteners may actually overstimulate the brain’s sugar receptors and alter the way we taste food. This means that people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing, and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, virtually unpalatable.
In other words, the intense sweetness of artificial foods may be making you shun healthy, nutritious foods while reaching for more artificially flavored foods with less nutritional value. The end result of these scenarios is often weight gain, a known risk factor for obesity, coronary heart disease, diabetes, or other metabolic disorders. In my research, I learned that all of these conditions are being studied in association with the consumption of diet sodas, but there is no conclusive evidence that the consumption of diet soda poses a potential health risk.
Is the real problem with diet sodas the same issue with all artificial sweeteners?
Consumers need to be aware of the total amount of artificial sweeteners present in all of their daily food choices, not just diet soda. It’s not uncommon for diet soda drinkers to also choose sugar-free products, including baked goods, jellies, ice cream, even healthy choices like juices and yogurt. Consumers would be better nourished and more satisfied if they included whole fruits and plain or low fat yogurt over artificially sweetened, fruit-on-the-bottom varieties.
And the bottom line here is that consumers should consider how much sweetener, natural or artificial, does it really take to enjoy any food or beverage. Our overconsumption of processed foods (which are laced with unnecessary amounts of sugar, both natural and artificial) has desensitized our taste and enjoyment of delicious whole foods. I recommend clients to take a taste challenge and instead of unconsciously adding two or three packets of sweetener to their coffee, tea, or cereal, to start with a teaspoon or half a packet, combine it well and then taste and add more in small increments until an acceptable taste is reached. Then shoot for less the next time.
What to take from this information?
Artificial sweeteners can play a safe role in your diet, especially for those with diabetes, sugar sensitivity or other metabolic conditions. The key factor is to use these products judiciously to complement your overall nutrition plan.
Diet sodas may very well be our largest consumption of artificial sweeteners, but the food industry has taken its consumption to new heights, adding sugar-free products to the every corner of the market, including dairy and juices. Consumers must learn to read food labels in order to calculate the overall amount of these sweeteners in their daily diet.
If artificial sweeteners do make us more susceptible to eating more calories by overcompensation, desensitizing our taste buds, or tricking our brain to signal for more calories, we need to reduce and mindfully select products from those categories to balance with a diet of whole foods including fresh fruits and vegetable, low fat meat and dairy, seafood, whole grains and sources of healthy fat.
How do we start to use less sweetener?
The good news is that you can retrain your taste buds to crave less sugar.
- Start by reducing the amount of any sweetener–natural or artificial–that you add to your food. Instead of adding a packet of sweetener to your morning coffee, start with a half packet and try it for a week. You might be surprised how quickly your taste buds will adjust!
- Learn to drink water, unsweetened ice tea or sparkling water with added lemon or orange slices.
- Invest in a soda stream. You can add lots of natural fun flavors without the addition of any sweetener.
- When your stomach growls or your head aches, sip on some water to be sure you’re not just thirsty; and if you are hungry, don’t tease it with a diet soda, please it with a big, sweet peach.
Thank you so much, Luci! If you live in Nashville, check out Align Wellness Studio for overall health needs including Reiki, Pilates, Jump Classes and Anti-Inflammatory Eating Plans.