Forget about the sweeteners—for your own good

Happy Holidays! I’m later than usual putting up the tree and blasting carols as we pull out the ornaments and turn on the lights, but now that we’re here, I’m ready to love it!  Have a great holiday season–

I just wrote an article about developing a positive mindset to help us maintain a healthy weight (look for it in the January 2017 issue of Bellingham Alive!). In it, I said that although I have strong opinions about nutrition and the value of physical activity, it’s far more important that we each find our own best healthy foods and activities, because that’s how we discover the most satisfying and sustainable way to stay active and healthy.

I said it, and I believe it. But, as I said, I have strong opinions, especially about processed foods. I know it’s hard for busy people, and particularly hard for busy people who don’t like to cook. But here’s one more plea for avoiding processed foods, especially processed foods with artificial sweeteners. And this goes double for diet sodas, especially for children.

It’s harsh that we turned to artificial sweeteners because we thought they help us consume fewer calories, but the truth is out: that’s not how they work, and calories don’t mean what we thought they mean anyway. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital started with the question of why artificial sweeteners—specifically aspartame in this study—don’t work to support weight loss. The possibility this study looked at is the action of a gut enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP), previously shown to prevent obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

This enzyme is the one that speaks to us about 20 minutes after we eat, producing the sensation that makes us wonder why we thought we needed another helping. It turns out that aspartame knocks out IAP activity.

The study used four groups of mice, 2 fed a normal diet, 2 fed a high fat diet. Half the normal diet mice had aspartame in their water, to equal the amount of 3 and a half cans of diet soda for a human adult. Half the high-fat diet mice had aspartame to equal 2 cans of diet soda. The others in both normal and high fat groups had just water.

After 18 weeks, there was no difference in weight between the two normal diet groups. Mice on the high fat diet with aspartame gained more weight than the ones who had plain water. Here’s the kicker: the aspartame mice in both groups had higher blood sugar levels and higher levels of the systemic inflammation associated with metabolic syndrome.

So much for aspartame. But another set of studies (described in the website STAT) looked at sucralose, aka Splenda, with equally horrifying results. The first study was done with flies, one group eating their fill of a normal diet, and the other eating their fill of a diet containing sucralose. In a few days, the sucralose group were eating 30% more calories. When both groups consumed normal sugar, the sucralose flies showed more neuron activity, suggesting a stronger taste for sweet as a result of their exposure to sucralose.

One of the study’s authors explained that the same neurons also make food taste better when we are starving. In other words, the neuron activity makes us think we need to eat when we don’t. The study was repeated with mice, whose response is more likely to be similar to humans’, with the same results.

I wonder if this is what’s behind the phenomenon that people are eating so much more sugar than we used to. I know so many people who’ve been drinking diet drinks to cut down on calories, only to find they’re craving much sweeter foods—much too sweet for my taste.

It’s kind of like our history with tobacco, which was marketed as good for us—“so relaxing!”—before it was seen as the health hazard it is. I think that’s where we are with artificial sweeteners and the ridiculous amount of sugar in processed foods. Just say no, folks.

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