The popularity of artificial sweeteners has had many unintended health consequences, including weight gain.
Sugar can pose health dangers and this recognition may have led you to look for different ways to sweeten your food. Artificial sweeteners have been touted as a healthier alternative to sugar and a boon for people with diabetes and other blood sugar issues. Early clinical studies (most before 1978 and all done on rats) found that there was no evidence that artificial sweeteners are harmful to human health. These are the studies that led the FDA to certify artificial sweeteners as being GRAS – Generally Recognized as Safe. However, recent long-term studies on the effects of using artificial sweeteners in humans have begun to reveal a different story.
Current studies have found conclusively that consumption of artificial sweeteners and the artificially sweetened food is positively linked to weight gain and increased waist circumference. Why? A sweet taste induces an insulin response, which normally causes dietary sugar to be metabolized as glucose, the body’s main source of energy. Because blood sugar does not increase with artificial sweeteners, the insulin release causes a hypoglycemic reaction (low blood sugar) leading to increased hunger.
Simply put, artificial sweeteners are not satisfying. They create an addiction to sweets by training the taste buds to “need” sweeter foods, and by sending a signal to the body that it is still hungry. Since the zero calories and lack of nutritional value in artificial sweeteners do not satisfy hunger, someone consuming one serving of an artificially sweetened food such as a no-sugar cookie would be likely to eat three or four, and then follow it up with a calorie dense food to satiate their hunger. Additionally, artificial sweeteners are found exclusively in processed foods, which tend to be high in refined carbohydrates, chemical additives, and other non-nutritive substances, thereby putting an extra burden on the body’s detoxification pathways. The extra fat around the belly (where the body stores fat it can’t process) is a good indication of the body having a hard time detoxifying.
So, what are your best natural options to satisfy your sweet tooth?
Natural or for a stand-alone sweet treat:
Coconut Sugar (1 tablespoon – 45 calories) An alternative to real sugar, but should be used sparingly. It contains insulin, a fiber which keeps it low on the glycemic index. It contains a fair amount of fructose.
Maple Syrup (1 tablespoon – 52 calories) Real maple syrup – not the artificially flavored corn syrup. Minimally processed, contains high amounts of immune supporting minerals such as zinc and manganese.
Blackstrap Molasses (1 tablespoon – 47 calories) High in minerals and anti-oxidants with a low glycemic index. Good for sweetening meats and vegetables, as well as beverages
Balsamic Glaze (1 tablespoon – 20-40 calories depending on thickness) Great for glazing meats and cooked vegetables.
Banana puree and applesauce (1 cup – 200 calories) Can be used as a sweetener for baked goods, puddings, and smoothies.
Sweet spices: Allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, and garam masala can all be used to sweeten stews, sauces and baked goods. Cinnamon has the added benefit of stabilizing blood sugar.
As you can see, there are many alternatives to consider, but they may require you to be willing to try something new and different (molasses in your coffee – not bad!) The best natural sweeteners are nutritive, meaning that they have caloric and nutritional content. They are not highly processed and contain mostly the whole food instead of a derivative.
The ultimate goal of living a healthy, sugar-free life is to re-train your taste buds to be happy with less of the overpowering sweetness found in processed foods and added sweeteners (real or artificial) and be satisfied with the natural sweetness found in fruits, vegetables, and spices. By starting a little at a time to replace sugar or artificial sweeteners in your diet, you can achieve a sweet, healthy life.
(Source material: “Artificial Sweeteners and the Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings” by Quing Yang, Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine; “Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements” Susan E. Swithers National Institutes of Health publication; Natural Health Sherpa
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