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Most of us have a little sweet tooth. So satisfying that craving without adding unneeded calories to your diet may seem like a win-win. But if the promise of artificial sweeteners seems too good to be true, that’s because it might be.
“Artificial sweeteners are really not a great solution to the sugar problem,” says Mary Michele Duns, APRN, a primary care nurse practitioner. “While most of the fears about them have been debunked, including the misconception that they cause cancer, there are still more drawbacks than benefits.”
Her four main reasons for avoiding artificial sweeteners:
- They can throw off a balanced diet
“People sometimes consider the calories saved and ‘spend’ them on indulging in perhaps a hamburger or piece of cake.” While a diet soda can save about 150 calories when compared to its sugary cousin, a hamburger contains more than 350 calories and a piece of cake has more than 250. “It’s not a good way to balance calorie intake.”
- They may make you hungry — and change how you metabolize food
Some research suggests that using artificial sweeteners may actually increase your appetite. Your body is used to sweet foods providing it with calories and energy. When you consume a zero-calorie artificial sweetener, your body may respond by becoming hungry because it is looking for more fuel. Other research indicates that the artificial sweeteners found in diet soda may affect how your body converts food to energy, possibly causing weight gain.
- They change the way you taste naturally sweet foods
Ounce for ounce, artificial sweeteners are often sweeter than their natural counterparts. Once you become accustomed to the sweetness of artificial sweeteners, naturally sweet foods like fruit pale in comparison. When you develop a preference for sweet foods, you’ll crave more — which will likely lead to more poor diet decisions.
- They might cause stomach problems – in more ways than one
If you’ve ever felt some stomach discomfort after eating artificially sweetened food or drinks, sugar alcohols may be the culprit. Sugar alcohols, such as maltitol and sorbitol, are made from carbohydrates and have fewer calories than sugar, but some people can’t digest them. As a result, they can cause digestive issues such as bloating and diarrhea. Some research also indicates that artificial sweeteners change the bacteria in your gut and can lead to glucose intolerance.
So, what should you do when your sweet tooth strikes?
“Everything in moderation,” says Duns about indulging your cravings. However, the best food to reach for when you’re hankering for something sweet is a piece of fruit. “I also tell people to cut out all soda, regardless of whether it’s regular or diet,” she says. Drinking water is the best way to quench your thirst. Unsweetened seltzer water, available in a host of subtle flavors, can also be a good substitute when you want to reach for a fizzy treat.
She also encourages people to try honey or agave to sweeten their drinks or to add to their morning cereal in lieu of an artificial sweetener. Stevia, a low-calorie sugar substitute made from a plant, may also be preferable to an artificial sweetener, says Duns. However, more research is needed to see how Stevia directly compares.
Mary Michelle Duns, APRN
Primary Care Nurse Practitioner