Breaking the sugar habit can be tough. But replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners carries its own challenges and risks.
By making the change to artificial sweeteners, we’re not really breaking the sugar habit. Instead, we’re using a substitute that tastes like sugar. So we’re still craving the sweet stuff, and now, on top of that, what we’re consuming is artificial. Scientific studies have shown that aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) adversely impacts blood sugar and insulin levels in the same way sugar does. Yes, it contains zero calories, but weight gain is not just about calories. These artificial substances keep metabolism in fat storage mode just the same as sugar by spiking the hormone insulin. Aspartame is especially notorious for fat gain. I have many weight loss patients who eventually hit a plateau. After further assessment of their eating habits, I often find regular consumption of diet soda or other artificially sweetened beverages (e.g., diet iced teas, Crystal Light). When these artificially sweetened beverages are eliminated the plateau is gone and weight loss continues!
Recent research on Sucralose (Splenda) reveals it isn’t much better. It, too, can cause surges in blood sugar and insulin in many individuals, keeping them in perpetual fat storage mode. So what about Stevia? Yes it’s natural, but so is sugar. It is likely the most innocuous sweetener, but Stevia will still keep you in perpetual sweet-craving mode. I also am not convinced that Stevia is without blame in weight loss plateaus and unstable blood sugar.
Sugar alcohols such as Erythritol and Xylitol, among others, aren’t recognized as carbohydrates in the body. They simply pass through you, literally, if you take enough of it. Most people can’t tolerate more than20 grams of sugar alcohols, the amount in about two low-carb protein bars, without having a laxative effect.
What about Agave? Agave has a higher fructose content than any other common sweetener, more even than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Because of its reputation as a “natural” sweetener, it is now widely used in products claiming to be good for health – from teas to nutrition bars and energy drinks. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Americans consume much too much fructose, an average of 55 grams per day (compared to about 15 grams 100 years ago, mostly from fruits and vegetables). The biggest problem is cheap HFCS, ubiquitous in processed food.
Agave is, at its heart, a sweetener. It’s hard to call agave a “healthy” food, but, depending on how it’s made, it can be less refined and chemical- laden than other sweeteners. When you eat fructose-rich agave, your body does not release nearly as much insulin as it does when you eat regular sugar. This can affect how your body releases a hormone called Leptin, which helps to control appetite. At the same time, experts believe that fructose is converted into fat more rapidly than glucose is. This can lead to several alarming consequences. The first is that people who eat a lot of agave are at risk for weight gain, especially belly fat. Thesecond is that agave may actually increase insulin resistance for both diabetics and non-diabetics.
But fortunately, agave is not the only natural sweetener you can turn to when you have to satisfy your sweet tooth. Raw honey has less fructose than most agave and is the only natural sweetener with other healthbenefits, which include anti-microbial, heart-healthy and anti- inflammatory effects. You can also use maple syrup instead of agave. It has a much lower fructose content. Or you can try pure glucose syrup for sweetening. It is less sweet than either agave or maple syrup and contains no fructose at all. But treat any of these like a sweetener, an occasional treat. They should all be used in moderation.
Leslie Welsch MS, RD, CDE, CDN.
Meet our Guest Blogger, Leslie Welsch:
Leslie Welsch MS, RD, CDE, CDN
Master of Science in Medical Biology Nutrition
Certified Diabetes Educator
Leslie is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, and Certified Dietitian-Nutritionist. Leslie received her Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from The University of Delaware. She received her Master of Science in Medical Biology Nutrition from Long Island University, CW Post where she earned the Outstanding Nutrition Award for her thesis work on Diabetes. Leslie began her career in the hospital setting, but quickly began working for various physicians on Long Island counseling their patients privately. She then opened up her own private practice in Huntington, NY where she had over 15 years of private practice experience in helping people live healthier lives. While Leslie takes a research-based approach to her clients’ health and well being, emotional and motivational support are essential to her practice. Leslie’s goal is to improve her clients’ health and sense of self-worth as well as offer non-judgmental, compassionate, and informative counseling for people to make healthy lifestyle changes.
Leslie specializes in diabetes, weight loss, bariatric nutrition, lowering cholesterol, lowering triglycerides, lowering blood pressure, pre-diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, food allergies/ intolerances, hypoglycemia, PCOS, and fatigue for adults, teens, and children.