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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Artificial sweeteners: not really magical

Clients, friends and family members often ask me about artificial sweeteners. My opinion hasn't changed in many years, actually it keeps getting reassured as more research gets published. I don't use them myself and I don't recommend anyone to use Equal (aspartame + dextrose + maltodextrin), Splenda (sucralose), Saccharin, or NutraSweet (aspartame).

These are some of the main reasons:

1. With their sweet taste, artificial sweeteners fool our body. By design, the body prepares its hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes, etc to utilize incoming sugar when it perceives a sweet flavor  (that's how we are engineered. It doesn't have to be table sugar, it could be from fruits or other foods containing glucose). But guess what? If no sugar comes in, but just an impostor, eventually, the neuroendocrine feedback loops built in our bodies linking pleasure, nourishment, deprivation and fat-storage get disrupted, and our brains don't even register that our appetite for sweets has been satiated, so we keep craving sweets, even if we just had Splenda in our coffee or drank a diet Coke.

It's like having a date, but instead of the guy you like (sugar) showing up, a total stranger (artificial sweetener) you are not interested in appears, and demonstrates to be completely subpar. You had spent hours getting ready plucking your eyebrows, doing your hair, applying makeup, getting a new outfit and talking to your friends about all the excitement and your future plans with this amazing man (neuroendocrine feedback loops prepping up). All for nothing! Your crush is nowhere to be seen. You feel horrible and become obsessed with finding him, you become a stalker (insatiable sugar cravings), but continue to date the man you didn't like (more Splenda) just because the one you are interested in is not available.

Please note that I'm not suggesting you to add sugar to your diet! Excess sugars are definitely problematic and are the topic of a blog post to follow this one. There are many unrefined sweet real food options that can satisfy your need/want for sweetness, but to be clear, artificial sweeteners are NOT the answer! Just continuing with the date analogy, even if you think you are in love with the guy who didn't show up (sugar), he's not worth it and is hurting you. You just need to look around some more and find your right fit (which is not Splenda either). So stay tuned...

2. There's no evidence artificial sweeteners help in weight loss. Quoting Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, "after almost 50 years of artificial sweeteners in the food chain, not a single peer-reviewed scientific study has shown any correlation between the use of such nasty tasting stuff and long-term weight loss." There are actually studies that have found that synthetic sweeteners are even more weight-promoting than sugar (mainly for the reason stated as #1).

3. There are plenty of studies linking artificial sweeteners with atherosclerosis, aging, kidney malfunction, cancer, leukemia, diabetes, DNA damage, neurotoxicity, and the list keeps going. A new study was recently published revealing an extensive array of safety concerns specifically to Splenda, including the formulation of dioxins, severely toxic (carcinogenic) compounds when sucralose is used in baking. In short, they can be a dangerous gamble, and I like working in favor of my body, not against it (and we should all do the same). For more on that and the link to the original study, click here.

4. Artificial sweeteners alter the gut microflora. As I've written before, the composition, diversity and balance of our gut microbiota (aka flora, the microorganisms populating our digestive tract) are detrimental in every single aspect of our health (I will press the STOP button here because I can go on and on, but click here if you want to know a bit more about this). Studies have shown that consuming artificial sweeteners changes the composition of our gut biota, and since I'm such a promoter and believer of probiotics (foods and supplements), prebiotics, cultured and fermented foods, and everything that helps keep the 3 pounds of bacteria and fungi we host in our bodies happy, I take this very seriously!

5. They taste awful! I refuse to fool my body (see above #1) and to harm it (#3), but I also refuse to feed myself something that tastes disgusting. There are so many delicious foods that nourish me and make me happy. Those are the ones I'm eating! Why do I need to resort to foul, fake, metallic, unpleasant flavors to produce fake satisfaction? Enjoying what we eat, preferably, every time we eat, is part of a healthy existence. I try to give myself that gift every day!

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you probably know I try to be as chill as possible and in the look for a middle ground (or you might know me as the maniac who freaks out with artificial food coloring or makes berry crisps with eggplant in the mix), but in my opinion, given all the evidence, there's no gray zone when it comes to artificial sweeteners. 

I invite you to participate in an experiment: if you consume an artificial sweetener, sit down quietly, and be really introspective when eating or drinking it. Try to sense its smell and taste. Close your eyes if you need to. Don't get distracted by any noise, people, conversations or thoughts. Focus on the flavor and try to discover if you really enjoy it... 

In my opinion, there's a whole belief system and many daily rituals around consuming no calorie synthetic sweeteners. There's routine and there's the cultural value we've given to them, there's even the comfort felt while opening the pink (or blue or yellow) individual package, seeing the powder emerge, hitting our breakfast and offering us the warmth of a new day, sweetening a fresh cup of joe or feeding us a sensation of control in a chaotic world. This activity embraces us into an idea, as over the years, we've been told these scientifically advanced sweeteners are the smart choice and the modern day solution to our criminal sugar lust, they imply we are being "good,"  and/or that we will look amazing if we consume them, also pumping up our self esteem. They can mean being in control or give us assurance. They can make us feel better psychologically and emotionally for what they represent. But I hate to break it: that has been a very long farce. They can be harmful. And although not an easy task, decreasing, and hopefully at some point ending their consumption completely, would be a wonderful thing!

In case you are interested in reading research studies about the problems of artificial sweeteners, I encourage you to do searches in PubMed, or click here for a great amount of articles and references. And for inspiration, here's Phyllis' story.

Phyllis is a lovely 18-year-old who came to me to do her senior exploration internship. In preparation for the upcoming alternative sweetener post I promised above, I asked Phyllis to do some research online and I also included this article about the neurobiology of sugar cravings. The next time we met, I asked Phyllis how she had felt about everything she had read, and she told me that the aforementioned article surprised her the most and after reading it, she decided to quit using Splenda. Here's what she wrote:

Being an eighteen year old living in Manhattan I have always been conscientious of my calorie intake. I'm not obsessive but I feel if there is an option for an equally tasteful food with less calories why not choose it? That is how I chose to use Splenda. I drink coffee fairly often and I need to mask the bitter taste with the sweetness of Splenda. Of course I assumed Splenda wouldn't be the best option because there had to be chemicals in something that had no calories; but my thought was 'at least I'm not wasting my calories'. It wasn't only the no calorie aspect of Splenda that made me use it so often, it was the sweet but not too sweet taste that I enjoyed so much. So of course I continued to use it every time I had a cup of coffee. After reading an article about what Splenda (and other artificial sweeteners) does(do) to your body I was been enlightened. I never imagined that something so small could be so harmful. Splenda tricks your body, the sweet taste causes the body to expect calories when no calories hit, then your body craves more calories causing a person to consume more. When I first read this, I was shocked. Splenda is supposed to reduce your calorie consumption not help increase it. Right away I decided to give up Splenda. I wasn't exactly sure what I would replace it with but I just knew that anything was better than an artificial sweetener that tricks your body. It's been about a week since I have given Splenda up. I no longer put any sweetener in my coffee at first it was difficult the taste wasn't as satisfying as it was with the Splenda. But The fact that it's only been about a week and I'm enjoying my coffee without Splenda just as much as I did with it, makes me feel great and accomplished. 

I know it's not so easy for many people. I'm definitely not comparing nor putting pressure on anyone, but I do think that what Phyllis did was really motivating. It's been way more than a week since she wrote that, and last time I checked in with her, she was still completely off Splenda and not missing it a bit. It's just some food for thought, and I would LOVE to hear about your own experiences. So please share!
In the meanwhile, since I'm not a coffee drinker (I feel really sick and physically uncomfortable when I drink it), it might be way too easy for my to tell you just not to drink Splenda sweetened coffee and/or to alter your precious morning ritual. However, I do want to bring up an alternative: the coffee that all the cool kids are drinking and swearing by. From mental acuteness, satiety, energy increase, to pure bliss, Bulletproof Coffee is all the rage (although some folks didn't experience such magic) and since it's harmless unless you don't do well with coffee or butter, I'm putting it out there. Try it and see if it works for you!
Here's how you make a serving of it:

1 cup brewed organic coffee (or a shot of espresso) 
1 tablespoon MCT oil*
1 tablespoon ghee or unsalted grass fed butter

Combine all three ingredients in a power blender (such as Vitamix, Ninja, etc) for about 30 seconds, until the drink becomes frothy. Drink!

*MCT oil is made of Medium Chain Triglycerides found in coconut and red palm oil, that are said to increase metabolism and provide quick energy to the body. You can find it in amazon. Some people have had good results by using virgin coconut oil instead of MCT, although coconut oil has a more varied mixture of fats, that do include in a high percentage MCT. I've never used MCT, as I'm more of a whole foods girl (not the store, but the actual food!), but it does beat artificial sweeteners by far!

I hope you enjoy it and please keep me posted!

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