Years ago, zero-calorie natural and artificial sweeteners were considered a staple for those having undergone bariatric surgery. Recent research has brought new scrutiny on these compounds that include saccharin, sucralose, aspartame, neotame, acesulfame, and stevia.
The above sweeteners are approved by the FDA. These compounds are found in many of our everyday items including yogurt, vitamins, salad dressings, bakery items, and more. So, they must be safe, right?
Research suggests excessive intake of any added sweetener, can cause severe negative long-term health effects. While there is no definitive consensus on why this happens or what exactly strikes a good balance (moderation), there is plenty we do know.
What We Know About Sugar
Refined, added sugar is a bad carb. As a simple carb, sugar offers no nutrition and represents empty calories. Unfortunately, the modern palette has gotten used to added sugars and it’s getting harder to find anything without sugar added.
Sugar occurring naturally in many of the most nutritious foods we consume is not so bad. Even so, it is best to limit consumption. The problem is, we no longer find those naturally sweetened foods as palatable and we don’t eat enough of them.
The result has been an epidemic of added sugar consumption. Diabetes and obesity, two diseases linked, at least in part, to sugar consumption, are skyrocketing. Until recently, artificial sweeteners were the supposed cure for the epidemic.
What We Know About Artificial Sweeteners
The main benefit of artificial sweeteners is that they offer the sweet taste we crave without the calories. Drinking a diet soda versus the regular kind can save 140+ calories per bottle. Baking a cake with sucralose versus regular sugar can save thousands of calories. Seems like a win-win.
So, what’s the catch? There are a few and they’re biggies.
- There is a tendency to believe we can save calories by drinking diet soda in order to splurge on something else.
- New studies show that artificial sweeteners may be changing our palates to need sugar in to enjoy our food. This means that low-sugar items become less appealing. As our tastes change, so do the processed foods that cater to those tastes. The result? Intake of low-nutrition, processed foods that manage our cravings, but do not offer quality nutrition.
- Artificial sweeteners, much like sugar, may be addictive at least in animal studies. Just like every craving, over time we need more and more to keep us happy. You may have started with half a packet of sweetener in coffee, but a year later need a full packet. Trying to detox our bodies of such a powerful compound does not happen easily.
- Sugar substitutes may trick the body into believing it needs more calories, which it will crave from other sources.
- Even though there is some scientific consensus that many artificial sweeteners are not carcinogens in small amounts, they have become an ever-larger part of our diets. We do not know if these compounds could cause cancer in the quantities being consumed today
What About Other Natural Sweeteners?
There are many natural sweeteners out there, some that offer very compelling benefits. For example, being organic, derived from plants and zero- or very low calories. However, the negatives are the same. Extreme sweetness, regardless of the calories, can work against us, natural or not, for the same reasons mentioned above.
What’s the Takeaway on Sugar and Natural and Artificial Sweeteners?
To be sure there is a place for them, we must reduce our dependence on them. Just as we detox from a drug, removing added sugars and all forms of added sweetener from our lives will make us healthier and reduce those cravings that are so hard to resist.
OK, You’ve Told Me what NOT to Do, Now What Are My Options?
- Understand that you will not be able to avoid all artificial sweeteners, especially right after bariatric surgery. Most protein shakes have it, but you can minimize your exposure to it.
- Choose your products carefully by checking ingredients.
- Avoid the consumption of non-essential foods and drinks like zero-calorie flavored drinks sweetened artificially.
- Work with your nutritionist and support group peers to find new and interesting options.
- Get back to basics. What did our parents and grandparents eat and drink when obesity was not a national crisis? What portions did they find filling? How can we emulate that? Changing what a “treat” means (maybe instead of cake, we try fruit) and limiting portions (get the taste but not the quantity) can both help.
- Remember that healthy weight loss requires a combination of factors for long term success. Yes, diet is a very important component, but exercise and mental health are key to losing weight, too.
- Learn to love water again. For added flavor, you can place fruits and vegetables in the bottle – a little lemon, cucumber, mint or watermelon adds minimal calories and offers a more satisfying taste.
As with everything after bariatric surgery, moderation is key. We don’t expect you to cut out sugar entirely. Rather, we want to see you consume sugar in appropriate quantities. Ideally in the form of whole fruits, not in juices or added to other foods and drinks.