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Battle it Out: Artificial Sweetener v. Sugar

Posted May 07, 2019 by Rose Ann Chiurazzi, MA, RDN, LD, CDE

Sweetener Blog

The sweeter things in life are present at most celebrations...weddings, birthdays, work promotions, new baby, office get the idea. But if you are like many Americans trying to cut back on your refined sugar intake for health reasons and/or weight management, you may think opting for sugar replacements might be a healthier choice.

When it comes to real sugar (sucrose) versus artificial sweeteners, like the ones found in diet sodas and ‘zero-calorie” food items, there is a lot of misinformation in marketing. While on the surface you may think a can of diet soda is better than a can of the “real” thing, there is evidence it could actually lead to weight gain, instead of weight loss.

A 12-ounce can of soda sweetened with regular sugar usually contains around 150 calories, most of which are from sugar. In theory, if you remove the source of the calories you remove the calories, right? Not so simple.

What is an artificial sweetener?

These substitutes are sweeteners used instead of sucrose. Foods and drinks that contain artificial sweeteners often come with labels like ‘sugar-free’ or ‘no calories’ and contain no sucrose.

Currently, there are five FDA-approved artificial sweeteners: aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and neotame. The way our bodies and brain react to high levels of these sweeteners is highly complex, including our brain’s ability to rationalize these “healthier” choices.

  • By opting for a “healthier” alternative, consumers tend to intake even more calories than they would if consuming a non-diet soda. Your brain can rationalize: ‘I’ll get a burger with fries, since I got a diet drink.’
  • Artificial sweeteners are much more sweet than natural sugars. High consumption of these substances can decrease our taste buds’ sensitivity to sugar levels and lead to craving high levels of natural and artificial sweeteners, again adding more calories than the consumer realizes.

These links can lead to significant weight gain in certain individuals but more detailed research will need to continue.

Are there any health benefits to artificial sweeteners?

The theory still holds true: if you remove a large amount of calories from a diet, you can lose weight. If you are significantly overweight, switching from a high-sugar diet to one that makes use of moderate artificial sweeteners can give you a boost in initial weight loss. Most of the concern with artificial sweeteners is the high use, over time.

Then I should opt for sugar?

The key to the sweeter things in life is always in moderation. High amounts of sugar is not good for the body either, it may even affect your mental health. If you have a sweet tooth, it’s okay to indulge in small amounts but try to substitute with naturally sweet things, like fruit-infused water or use unrefined sugars, like agave and raw honey when cooking and sweetening things.

If you are struggling with weight loss, the Summa Health Weight Management Institute offers many options. We understand that readiness to lose weight varies from one patient to the next, so we offer a continuum of services starting with lower intensity options with a dietitian, and then in higher intensity options including behavioral, nonsurgical and surgical options. All of our higher intensity services are designed to take place with a physician or behavioral specialist to make sure you get the level of care that you need.

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