How Sweet it is!

sweetnerIt all makes sense.  Sugar is the enemy!  It is high in calories and short on nutrition.  And in this generation of type 2 diabetes, who wants the white powdery stuff around anyway?  The perfect solution would be to find a substitute for sugar and use it to sweeten beverages, desserts, yogurts and puddings.  It cuts the amount of calories you consume per food item and it should go a long way to solving the epidemic of overweight and obesity.  Sounds good, right? But guess what? It isn’t working!

Artificial sweeteners not only aren’t helping people lose weight; a study conducted at Harvard Medical School using the Framingham Heart Study shows that consuming diet drinks may actually increase the risk of heart disease.  Ravi Dhingra, M.D. and her colleagues looked at nearly 6,000 middle-aged men and women who had medical examinations every four years.  Those who consumed more than one diet or regular soda per day experienced a 25% increased risk of impaired fasting glucose and high triglyceride levels.  They had a 31% greater chance of becoming obese, a 32% higher chance of low HDL levels (good cholesterol), and a 44% increased risk of metabolic syndrome.

And a very recent study suggests that the popular drinks may increase the risk for stroke, myocardial infarction, and vascular death.”People who had diet soda every day experienced a 61% higher risk of vascular events than those who reported drinking no soda,” reported lead investigator Hannah Gardener, ScD, an epidemiologist from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida.  Previous studies have suggested a link between diet soda consumption and the risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes. But this is the first time diet drinks have been associated with vascular events.

So the question is: how does something that has less calories cause you to become obese and put your cardiovascular health at risk?  Several theories abound, but the overall consensus is that artificial sweeteners may actually encourage you to partake of more servings of food or drinks than would sugar.  It appears from studies conducted on animals that sugar substitutes may interfere with the body’s natural ability to count calories based on the food’s sweetness.  Additionally, many foods containing sugar substitutes may still be high in fat and total calories.  But because we see that it is sugar-free, we eat more of it.  In short, at the end of the day, it encourages our sweet tooth, causing us to consume more calories.

What are these sweeteners and just how sweet are they?  Aspartame, commonly known as NutraSweet, is 200 times sweeter than sugar.  Saccharin, which is marketed as Sweet ‘n Low (among others brands) is also 200 times sweeter than sugar. One of the more popular sweeteners today is Sucralose, which we see on the shelves as Splenda. It is 600 times sweeter than sugar.  Although all of these sweeteners have been approved for use and have been determined as safe by government authorities, their continued use has been shown to be problematic.  It should be noted that the Center for Science in the Public Interest, citing a study done by the National Cancer Institute, still maintains that saccharin in heavy amounts causes cancer of the bladder.  Some of these sweeteners are known to cause bloating and stomach discomfort as wellas rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, swelling, muscle aches, headaches (migraines), intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain.  This is particularly true of people that have food sensitivities and allergies to begin with.

Many people have chosen to use a more natural product as a sweetener.  Stevia is a genus of about 240 species of herbs and shrubs in the sunflower family. As a sweetener and sugar substitute, stevia’s taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar, although some of its extracts may have a bitter or licorice-like aftertaste at high concentrations. With its steviol glycoside extracts having up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, stevia has garnered attention with the rise in demand for low-carbohydrate, low-sugar food alternatives. Because stevia has a negligible effect on blood glucose, it is attractive as a natural sweetener to people on carbohydrate-controlled diets.

In all, what we DO know is that eating real, whole foods is a better way to lose weight and to stay healthy.  Whole foods, such as whole grains and breads, tend to fill you up more and lengthen the amount of time before you feel hungry again.  Diet products almost always tend to leave you wanting more, and if you want more, you will take more, because after all, it’s meant for people who are dieting!  So remember: just because a certain food is marketed as a “diet” product doesn’t mean it will help you lose weight. If anything, the complete opposite might be true.

The bottom line: consuming wholesome, healthy foods as opposed to those containing artificial sweeteners will more likely keep you thin, help you avoid heart disease and will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”



  1. sarah hecht May 5, 2014 at 6:24 am - Reply

    it seems to me that people who use diet sweeteners are generally overweight. Maybe that is why they are so much more at risk. i’m not sure the study took it into account statistically. not every data study is statistically responsible. statistics is a highly complex and refined mathematical tool.

    I learn a lot from Alan Freistat’s website. Thank you for the level-headed information and inspiration.

    • alanfitness May 15, 2014 at 11:35 am - Reply

      HI Sarah and thank you for your post. Many people using sweeteners are indeed overweight to begin with, but many, many aren’t. And yes, I would agree that most studies can never be 100% statistically accurate. But when numerous studies over the past 7-8 years are all telling us the same thing and come to the same conclusions (albeit in different ways), we have to pay attention. I don’t pay attention to a study done on 10 mice, but I do pay attention to studies that use large groups of people of a long period of time and have good controls. Keep enjoying my blogs and my website.

  2. […] to look for when you read the ingredients?  High-fructose corn syrup, sucrose and of course, and artificial sweetener.  Yes it’s true—ironically, artificially sweetened drinks don’t help you lose weight.  They […]

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