Humans are naturally attracted to sweet tastes. It has been suggested that early humans found sweetness appealing because it was a way to detect whether a food was safe to eat.
Artificial sweeteners, which date back to at least the late 1800s, were developed as a way to indulge the sweet tooth while avoiding the added calories of sugar, even though sugar contains just 16 calories in one teaspoon and at the time there wasn’t nearly as much sugar in the American diet.
There have been claims that artificial sweeteners help to control blood sugar in diabetic diets while giving a diabetic person the satisfaction of having sweet tastes. However, recent research raises questions about whether artificial sweeteners are beneficial, and even whether they are harmless. The suggestion is that they might actually elevate blood-sugar levels, which runs counter to a diabetic’s efforts to reduce blood glucose levels.
One study found that women who drink large amounts of diet drinks may be at risk of Type 2 diabetes. Additional studies have suggested a connection between diet soda consumption and other medical problems, including metabolic syndrome and vascular events such as stroke. Long-term use of artificial sweeteners also has been associated with obesity in nondiabetic subjects.
None of these studies is conclusive, and more research is needed. However, the information does tell us this: The habitual use of artificial sweeteners does not appear to be a panacea, and perhaps their use is having an effect that’s opposite to what was intended.
General scientific knowledge about obesity and eating has been growing in recent years, and as we learn more, this message comes across loud and clear: Weight management is a complex issue, and it requires more understanding than simply calories in, calories out.
Look no further than today’s obesity epidemic. Artificial sweeteners don’t seem to have helped Americans manage their weight very well. Diet drinks have become part of the American diet for many people, yet obesity persists.
Relying solely on artificial sweeteners isn’t likely to fix a problem with weight. People are psychological beings. They think. And many times they think in ways that are self-defeating. For example, people who drink diet soda regularly may rationalize that they can eat more at a meal or don’t have to be as vigilant with their food choices because they’re “saving a lot of calories by drinking a diet soda.”
If it’s true that artificial sweeteners can mess with your physiology, then using them as part of your weight-loss program may actually work against you.
You can be successful without artificial sweeteners. Plenty of people have gotten away from using such products and achieved healthy goals.
We will always be drawn to sweet tastes, so it is unrealistic to think we can forgo sweets altogether. However, there are other ways to get the pleasure of sweetness without compromising health. In addition, there is natural sweetness in many whole foods if you’re willing to reach out and try them. In addition, life is about balance, and that holds true with sugar, too. Having a treat with real sweeteners as part of a high-fiber, nutritious meal, within reason, isn’t going to hurt. On the contrary, when you feel both physically and psychologically satisfied after eating, you'll enjoy food more and be able to eat in a more naturally controlled manner.
If artificial sweeteners are a routine part of your diet, determine how much, or if, they have helped you achieve your weight-loss goals. It may be time to focus on behaviors beneficial to weight and health.
Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of “Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management.”