By now, just about everyone understands that sugar, especially all the added sugar dumped into sweetened drinks and other processed foods, is a health and wellness disaster. It hijacks our taste buds, pumps up blood sugar and insulin levels (next stop, diabetes) and it’s a major driver, maybe the major driver, of weight gain.

So, it’s no surprise that a lot of us are trying to cut back on the white stuff. But for many, it’s not an easy one to quit, so, millions choose the easy work-around, replacing it with no-cal artificial sweeteners, be it whatever’s inside a can of diet soda or those little colored packets of sugar substitute that land in a cup of coffee or glass of iced tea.

Sweeteners, even the ‘good’ ones can set off weight gain.

For a lot of people, the switch seems like a logical way to go. Replace a two-Coke a day habit with diet soda and you’ve saved 300 calories which, in theory, should help you lose weight or keep it off. Just one problem. Not only are these sugar substitutes toxic – and I’m amazed the FDA has allowed these products to stay on the market – they don’t work ! Study after study has shown that switching to sugar substitutes doesn’t translate to weight loss and, in quite a few studies, leads to weight gain.

You can’t fool your physiology – or Mother Nature.

Here’s the not-so-sweet truth: you can fool your taste buds with the super-sweet taste of the sugar substitutes, but not the rest of your physiology. While the fake stuff activates the same feel-good/addiction brain circuitry as the real thing, hunger hormones like ghrelin register the absence of calories and primes the body to look for those sweet, empty calories elsewhere. And some research even suggests that artificial sweeteners manage to raise blood sugar and insulin levels, increasing the risk for diabetes, a neat and nasty trick for stuff devoid of actual nutrition!

Fake sweeteners train you to crave more sweetness.

Underlying all this interesting biochemistry is a fundamental truth about human nature. If you want to lose weight, the last thing you want to do is to train your palette to thrill to the super-sweet taste of artificial sweeteners. That’s just a recipe for being tormented by cravings for high-cal, sugary foods forever. Considering that the number of Americans using artificial sweeteners more than doubled between 1987 and 2000, roughly the same era when the national waistline ballooned, safe to say that switching to the fake stuff turned out to be a less-than-great weight-loss strategy for millions of those with weight concerns.

Artificial sweeteners can take years off your life.

How bad are artificial sweeteners for your health? Here’s one clue. The prestigious journal JAMA Internal Medicine recently published a study that looked at a population of some 450,000 people and found that regular diet soda drinkers had an almost a one-third greater chance of dying young than occasional or non-imbibers  — and I hope that leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

Artificial sweeteners are just plain toxic.

In animal studies, all the major fake-sugar ingredients, including aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) and sucralose (Splenda), have been found to be toxic, sometimes even to the DNA machinery inside the cells. Saccharin tests out the worst but I have to give a shout-out to sucralose as well. When it’s heated, it releases compounds related to that notorious carcinogen, dioxin. But it may turn out that the greatest harm these compounds do to us is indirect. All these chemicals slow down the growth of the good bacteria that live in our gut – aka the microbiome  — that are essential for helping our own gut cells protect our immunity and keep inflammation at bay. Take down your microbiota with all that fake sweetness and, sooner or later, you may go down with it.

Time to get off the sugar substitute merry-go-round.

In the end, it’s all about jettisoning one truly awful habit in exchange for a healthier, happier and possibly an even longer life. Seems like a good deal to us. So, where to start? Here are a few tips on how to kick your fake-sugar habit to the curb:

 

  1. Time to taper: If you’re not ready to go cold turkey, cut your intake of the fake stuff by degrees. For instance, if you typically use two packets of Splenda in your coffee, take that down to one packet, and then over the next few weeks, to half a packet, then a quarter. Gradually, you’ll wean yourself off that ultra-sweet taste and begin to enjoy what food and drink are really supposed to taste like!
  2. Add more flavor: At the same time you’re cutting back on fake-sugar (and real sugar, for that matter), up the amount of savory spices like rosemary and thyme you use in your cooking for a virtually non-caloric flavor boost.
  3. Don’t stint on spices: Other spices that add an almost no-cal, take on sweet: organic vanilla or almond extract, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom. They’ll help sweeten foods without damaging your body and, better yet, naturally help cut cravings.
  4. Sweeten as little and as healthily as possible: If, every so often, you want a hit of the straight sweet stuff, go with monk fruit (my go to sweetener) or a small amount of raw honey. Rule of thumb: use the sweet as a treat, not a round-the-clock crutch.
  5. Augment your endurance: If you need an energy boost for a bout of real endurance exercise like long-distance running or cycling (and not a 45-minute Zumba class), give ribose a try, it’s a simple-sugar sport supplement.
  6. Supplement with sweetness fighters: To help tame those cravings for sweetness, try taking L-glutamine, 1000 -2000 mg every couple of hours as necessary. Also consider supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin, Omega-3 fatty acids, plus vitamin D3 as some nutrient deficiencies can encourage cravings.
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