Are Artificial Sweeteners Good Sugar Substitutes? Here’s the Truth
How good are artificial sweeteners as sugar substitutes for weight loss? Find out.
If you ever see me having coffee, you’ll see a half empty packet of sugar-free kept next to it.
With this simple substitution, a 250-calorie King-Size Cappuccino converts into a 110-calorie drink that I can afford under my calorie quota. Skimmed milk, no whipped cream and artificial sweetener instead of sugar. Done.
Basically, eat anything you want, minus the calories!
Too good to be true?
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
Before we get to passing judgement, let us understand the defendant and its modus operandi.
Saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, advantame and sucralose are the six artificial sweeteners approved by US FDA. These, and Stevia, which you might have heard about as the only ‘natural’ sweetener.
Fun Fact: All big artificial sweetener brands stand for one of these compounds
So, Sugar-Free or Equal = Aspartame, Splenda = Sucralose, Sweet n Low = Saccharin.
How Do They Work?
There are three players in this entire diet game: Brain, Tongue and Stomach.
The stomach is a fairly simple guy. He just wants to be full. The more nutritious the stuffing, the better. But the gatekeeper to his food is the tongue, the problem-maker here. The brain is the third player and the one who decides the winner between the other two.
Unfortunately, the tongue and the brain are, let’s say, very close to each other. And the tongue knows how to get its way.
So, your eyes look at that sweet, sugar-loaded cake. Your tongue decides it wants a piece. And even before the stomach gets a hearing in the brain’s court, the matter is settled.
And the consequences of a bad decision are borne entirely by the poor tummy!
Which is why an artificial sweetener is a smart answer. They use the tongue’s frivolousness against it.
They mimic the effect of sugar on the tongue’s ‘sweet-receptors’, fooling the tongue into believing it got what it wanted.
So, What’s the Problem?
Don’t these sweeteners look like the answer to all our dieting prayers?
There are some extremely serious allegations against these innocent-looking, Good-Samaritans. Let’s see how true these are.
- They cause cancer
Short answer: No
Long answer: Not scientifically proven in a randomized trial. Consumption in moderate amounts is safe.
- They cause diabetes
Short recap on diabetes first: You eat sugar → body produces insulin to manage blood sugar levels → you eat a lot of sugar for a long time → the pancreas that secrete insulin get over-worked and over time, lose their efficiency at insulin production → so now, little sugar = big blood sugar spikes = diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners, of themselves, don’t cause diabetes.
But here is what happens.
When your tongue sees something that is supposed to be sweet (say a cake), it sends a signal to the brain that says: ‘I’m going for it’. The brain sends a signal to the tummy: ‘We’ve got (sugar) incoming. Take cover’. The tummy sends a signal to the pancreas: ‘Get ready bro, here comes the rain’. And the pancreas, faithful friends that they are, secrete insulin and get ready.
But the rain never comes. We were just fooling the tongue, remember.
So now your body has an insulin spike but no sugar to deal with. Do this too many times, and over a long period of time, it can break your insulin response system; causing diabetes.
Simply put, when it comes to these sweeteners, moderation is still the key.
Did you know? Artificial sweeteners are 200 to 20000 times sweeter than sugar!
Do They Help in Weight Loss?
Now this one is tricky. On the face of it, they absolutely must! Right?
But long-term research doesn’t seem to prove this. In fact, some proof to the contrary is found. Over time, it seems, these things can make you gain weight.
Before you lose it on this one (like I did), know this.
In the studies that show that artificial sweeteners might lead to weight gain, the sweeteners were not found to be the culprits. You (and I) were.
‘I had a diet coke. Surely now I can afford to have that pastry.’
That’s over-compensation. Sound like something you wouldn’t be naive enough to fall for? You’d be surprised at how many people told themselves the same thing and found themselves fatter just because of this.
Hence, these sweeteners are not your license to have absolutely anything and everything you want. They are your allies in having a ‘little’ of ‘some’ of the things that you just cannot let go of.
The second, and the most important reason why, in my view, they don’t help with weight loss, is that you’re not training your brain to not crave sweets.
You’re just fooling your tongue and brain into believing that they can have whatever they want without anything to pay for it. You, literally, want to have your cake and eat it too. And you might get away with it for a bit. But remember, the only one you’re actually fooling, is you.
While weight-loss and fitness seem to be about the body, because that’s where the effect is seen, the real game is played in the brain.
And the only way to win the game, long-term, is to train the brain out of craving sugary, nutrient-empty food.
With these sweeteners, however, you’re doing just the opposite. You are training the tongue to crave more, and the brain to cave-in even more.
No points for guessing where that leaves your long-term chances.
Artificial sweeteners are not bad. They, in fact, can be great partners in your weight-loss journey. You can stand and laugh as they fool your tongue and yet not hurt your tummy.
But use them excessively as sugar-substitutes in cakes, pastries and tarts, and soon enough, the joke will be on you.
(Shashank Mehta started his fitness journey at over 100 kgs, fifteen years ago. In the decade that followed, he taught himself fitness, lost 40 kgs, ran several marathons, and helped many friends and colleagues get onto the fitness bandwagon. An IIM graduate, he has self-experimented with every fitness-fad and quick-fix out there, and now writes a health blog that is read by thousands every week. You can read all his works at FITSHIT.IN)
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