Artificial Sweeteners: Are They A Good Replacement For Sugar?
This is me as I write this week’s post. Turning a (potentially) 250-calorie Cappuccino into a 110-calorie drink that I can afford under my calorie quota. Skimmed milk, no whip, and Sugar-Free instead of sugar.
But is this a good habit? Have you noticed how Diet Soda seems to be the first drink that runs out at parties nowadays? Sugar-free cookies, cakes, biscuits, beverages — all these are clearly on a stupendous rise. And why not? They seem like the perfect answer to all our weight-loss woes. Eat anything you want — minus the calories! I’ll take two of those! But are they too good to be true?
What are Artificial Sweeteners? Before we get to passing judgment, let’s understand the defendant and its MO. Saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose — those are the 5 artificial sweeteners approved by the US FDA. And Stevia, which you might’ve heard about as the only ‘natural’ sweetener. Fun Fact: All big sweetener brands stand for one of these compounds. So Sugar-Free = Aspartame, Splenda = Sucralose, Sweet n Low = Saccharin. Want to nerd out on this and read about each brand and compound? Head here.
How do they work? This is where things get really interesting. You see, there are 3 players in this entire diet game — Brain, Tongue, and Stomach. The stomach is a fairly simple, middle-class sort-a guy. He just wants to be full. The more nutritious the stuffing, the better. But the gatekeeper to his food is the tongue. And the brain is the one who decides who wins.Unfortunately, the tongue and the brain are, let’s say, very close to each other. And the tongue knows how to get her way. So your eyes look at that sweet, sugar-loaded cake, your tongue decides it wants a piece of that shit, 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. The tongue just has all the fun and no consequences.
Which is why artificial sweeteners are so cool. They use the tongue’s frivolousness against it. These compounds mimic the effect of sugar on the tongue’s ‘sweet-receptors’. So the tongue goes ‘mmmmh, we love this sweet-stuff’. And the brain goes ‘Ok, anything you want’. And the stomach goes ‘Sure. But I’ll let this one pass’. Because the stomach can’t process this compound — it just lets it pass right through. #Win Win Win.
So what’s the problem? ‘Aren’t these sweeteners the answer to all my dieting prayers?’ I know it seems like that. But there are some extremely serious allegations against these innocent-looking, Good-Samaritans. These are the Top 3:
1. They cause cancer!
2. They cause diabetes
3. They don’t actually help in weight loss
They cause cancer
No. Short answer.
Not scientifically proven in a randomized trial. Long answer.
Read this: Longest answer
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 secretes insulin gets over-worked and over time, loses its efficiency at insulin production → so now, little sugar = big blood sugar spikes = diabetes.
Now. artificial sweeteners, by themselves, don’t cause diabetes. But here’s what happens. When your tongue sees something that’s 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 friend that it is, secretes Insulin and gets ready.
But the rain never comes.We were just messing with 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, and it can again break your insulin response system. AKA diabetes. So basically, when it comes to these sweeteners, moderation is still key. You can’t keep having every dessert you always used to, and just replace the sugar with these. Remember this point, I’ll talk more about this later. By the way, fun fact: Did you know: Artificial sweeteners are 200 to 20000 times sweeter than sugar! These sweeteners are so good at gaming your tongue’s sweet-receptors that just a little amount can over-load them. So, again, moderation.
Do they actually 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. Yes — over time, it seems, these things can make you gain weight. Before you lose it on this one (like I did), know this. According to the studies, the sweeteners are not the culprits. You (and I) are.Here’s how. There are 2 main reasons why, in these studies, people actually ended up gaining weight once they started using artificial sweeteners.
Overcompensation ‘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 for it. So please, please, please remember — these sweeteners are NOT your license to have everything you always used to. They are your allies in having a little of some of the things that you just can’t let go of.
Fooling yourself The second, and the most important reason why, in my view, they don’t help 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. You see, weight-loss and fitness, seem to be about the body because that’s where you see the effects. But the 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. The only way is to train the brain to listen to the stomach before it gives-in to the tongue’s demands. But with these sweeteners, you’re doing the opposite. You’re training the tongue to crave more. And the brain to cave-in more. Because hey, it can have everything it wants. No points for guessing where that leaves your long term chances.
My Verdict Artificial sweeteners aren’t 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 as sugar-substitutes in cakes and pastries and tarts, and soon enough, the joke will be on you.