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Sweets are everywhere and they seem to grow exponentially during the holiday season. With so many extra temptations, it is especially nice to get through the holidays without any weight gain. One common tactic is to avoid sugar, replacing it with artificial sweeteners. But, how does this affect our health?
Many people try to avoid sugar in their diet without understanding the effects of sugar. People tend to choose to eat fat-free or sugar-free foods because they think they are “safe.” However, if they overeat these so-called “safe” foods, they will still end up gaining weight because weight gain is caused by eating too many calories. People try to avoid sugar for several reasons including prevention of cavities, and the belief that all simple carbohydrates are “bad.” All carbohydrates are technically sugar. Before your body will use the carbohydrates in table sugar, a baked potato, or an apple, it must break this carbohydrate down into glucose which is the form of sugar that your body can burn for energy.
For the average person, there’s nothing wrong with sugar per se, unless all the sweet foods in your daily diet are keeping you from eating and drinking the nutritious foods you need. But for people who are trying to lose weight, or have to watch their blood sugar because of diabetes, too much sugar can be a problem. That’s where artificial sweeteners can come in handy. According to the International Food Information Council, these low-calorie sweeteners are safe to use, provide sweetness without calories, and provide a choice of sweet foods.
The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners which are: acesulfame potassium (Sunett), aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal), sucralose (Splenda), D-Tagatose (Sugaree), and saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low). A lot of research has been done on these sweeteners to determine their safety. There has been criticism regarding saccharin because of research done in the 1970s that said that the use of these sweeteners can cause cancer in rats, however, further extensive research has been done since and it has been proven that several things that happen in animals cannot happen in humans, and saccharin has been deemed safe to use.
Aspartame is another sweetener that has had criticism. Some blame aspartame for causing brain tumors and chronic fatigue syndrome which is not true. The only people for whom aspartame is a medical problem are those with the genetic condition known as phenylkenoturia (PKU), a disorder of amino acid metabolism. Those with PKU need to keep the levels of phenylalanine in the blood low to prevent mental retardation as well as neurological, behavioral, and dermatological problems. Since phenylalanine is one of the two amino acids in aspartame, people who suffer from PKU are advised not to use it. Some people can be sensitive to sweeteners and experience symptoms such as headaches and upset stomach, but otherwise, there is no credible information that aspartame — or any other artificial sweetener — causes brain tumors, or any other illness.
Another sweetener that has become very popular is Stevia, however it is not yet FDA approved so it cannot be sold as an artificial sweetener. Stevia can be, and is, only sold as a dietary supplement. More research needs to be done on Stevia so it is recommended to be cautious when considering the use of it.
Sugar alcohol is different than regular sugar. You may see an ingredient list have words such as sorbitol, xylitol, isomalt, or mannitol. These are different types of sugar alcohols. They are a form of artificial sweetener, however each of these sweeteners occurs naturally in various plants. Some sugar alcohols can be just as sweet as sugar. The main appeal of sugar alcohols is that they have fewer calories than the more common sugars such as sucrose and fructose. They can also serve as texturizers which can lend the same kind of moistness and chewiness they would have if sugar were uses. They also decrease the incidence of cavities! You may have seen some chewing gums like “Trident” advertising that chewing their gum decreases tooth decay. This is because of the xylitol (sugar alcohol) that is in the gum. The reason sugar alcohols are lower in calories is that our bodies cannot digest them as quickly or as completely as sugars. If sugar alcohols are consumed in moderation they have little or no effect on blood sugar levels, which makes them appealing to people are trying to lower their sugar intake. But the one downside of the sugar alcohols, is that the lack of digestibility of them can have a laxative effect, which can cause side effects such as gas and in severe cases causing diarrhea.
Since sweeteners are so much sweeter than sugar, a very small amount is needed to achieve the same sweetness one gets from sugar. If used normally, the amounts you take in are so minuscule as to be of no concern at all. The main purpose of artificial sweeteners is to help people reduce caloric intake and/or control diabetes. If you don’t need to watch your calories or your blood sugar, there is no real reason to use the sweeteners unless you just happen to like the taste. But if you need to control your sugar and caloric intake, artificial sweeteners are a safe, effective way to do that.
Answer submitted by Mia Handell, registered and licensed dietitian at Provena Mercy Medical Center.
This is certainly a question I am asked often. The most recent body of research does seem to be suggesting that an excess of sugar in the diet from foods or beverages may put a person at higher risk for Type 2 Diabetes. What is not completely clear, is whether the increased risk is due to the sugar itself or the increased weight a person may gain as a result of the additional calories. When we are carrying extra weight, our body can become resistant to the action of the insulin we produce. This insulin resistance can lead to Type 2 Diabetes. So, if you could eat a banana split every night and not gain any weight, would you be at higher risk of Type 2 Diabetes? Maybe not, but how many of us can do that?
Weight loss is simple, you must burn off more calories than you eat. If you love to eat and have a hard time controlling portions, the important thing is to choose foods that are low in calories and high in nutrient value. Fill up on fruits, veggies and lean meats such as turkey, chicken and fish. These foods are lower in calories and provide many important vitamins and minerals that your body needs to be healthy and strong. To satisfy a sweet tooth, try smaller portions like sugar-free hot chocolate or strawberries drizzled with a low fat chocolate sauce.