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Real Sugar Vs. Artificial Sweeteners: Which Is Better?

Posted May 04 2009 3:41pm

Do you want to hear an amusing quote? This one comes via the coworker who was telling us how bad Plastic #7 is. After he told me how bad my plastic mug full of green tea was (because of the plastic, not the green tea), I picked up his Cherry Coke bottle and replied, “Says the guy drinking 70g of sugar in that one bottle.” Here we go (might not be verbatim, but captures the essence):

Sugar is okay. It’s the artificial stuff that’s bad.

Yes, you read that right…”sugar is okay”. I politely informed him that there was nothing “okay” about sugar, which he argued adamantly against.* Luckily, he gave me an idea for another post…this one!

So which is worse: sweeteners or artificial sweeteners? And is either “okay”?

Taking Yet Another Look At Sugar

In months past, I’ve taken a look at the various sweeteners available and which is best. I also considered the arguments for and against the notion that high-fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar. Well now let’s look at sugar in comparison to artificial sweeteners. Note that these pros and cons are relative to artificial sweeteners.

Just for a definition, by sugar, I mean any type of caloric sweetener, such as cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, honey, etc.

Why Sugar Is Better
Over millions of years of evolution, one thing the human body has figured out is how to handle incoming nutrients. Through the actions of insulin, it either uses or stores incoming glucose for future use, either as muscle or liver glycogen or as fat. What I’m getting at is that the body knows what to do with the sugar you’re feeding it.

Of course, it can’t handle the high quantities of sugar that most people are shoveling in, but at least it has a mechanism for dealing with what is going in when handling sugar. It doesn’t matter if that incoming sugar is in the form of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, or agave nectar…the body knows that it is sugar and breaks it down accordingly.

Why Sugar Is Worse
Sugar is an empty calorie. Sure, with foods like honey and molasses, you get a few vitamins, but calorie-for-calorie, sugar, in all of its forms, is just empty calories compared to meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and tubers. It has few, if any, vitamins and minerals. It actually robs the body of the nutrients required for the body to process it.

Sugar sends your blood sugar sky high where it does damage to your arteries (for which cholesterol gets the blame). Your insulin then shoots up, clearing out the sugar, sending you into a hypoglycemic funk, and ruining your insulin sensitivity.

Sugar is also exceedingly easy to overconsume. A single tablespoon of sugar is nearly 50 calories. That pan of brownies you’re staring down? There’s probably 20-30 tablespoons of sugar in there, so you can figure out how much is in that 3″ square that goes down so easily. My blood sugar is skyrocketing just thinking about it.

Artificial Sweeteners

As for artificial sweeteners, I’m referring to any of the man-made non-caloric sweeteners that are found in numerous products in the store: Splenda, aspartame, acesulfame K, saccharin, etc.

Why Fake Sugar Is Better
The main reason that people find artificial sweeteners to be a better choice is that they have no calories. The body is unable to process them and as such, cannot derive any nutritional value from them. Just switching from a five Coca-Cola per day habit to five Diet Cokes per day will save nearly 200g of sugar and 800 calories. That’s obviously an improvement if you’re trying to lose weight and requires no real change of your routine.

Why Fake Sugar Is Worse
Anyone that’s been around here for any length of time has figured out that I am a big fan of real, whole, unprocessed foods. And as bad as sugar is in terms of processing, artificial sweeteners are even worse. These sweeteners are made in a lab from who knows what chemicals. Further, we have no idea what these chemicals will do to the body with sustained long-term use.

I’m also not a fan of trying to fool the body. Just as with trying to outdo Mother Nature by creating “better” butter (i.e., margarine) and removing the “unhealthy” yolk from eggs, giving your body something that it can’t process just to keep from changing your habits is probably a recipe for failure.

Finally, I think normal use of artificial sweeteners is a false sense of security. There is scant evidence that these sugar substitutes actually help people lose weight. In fact, there is evidence that they may contribute to weight gain. These substances still stimulate the sweet receptors of the tongue and may even cause an insulin response since the tongue is the first step in the digestive process.

And as a final kicker, Splenda may be bad for your intestinal flora. As Mike pointed out in this article, your gut is the first line of defense in the immune system.

whats-better-than-a-cookie

So Which Is Best?

Well, that’s easy to answer…the best option is c) none of the above. Your best bet is always going to be to ditch the sweet stuff, whether real or artificial and stick to Real Food. Turning the sweet tooth off is a good idea; fooling it with fake sugar is not a viable long-term solution. We are primed to gorge on sugar at every opportunity. And here’s why I think that is:

  • Humans evolved in an environment with relatively little sugar.
  • Because we evolved in environments with few sources of concentrated sweetness, we learned to consume as much as we could when we found it, such as with a honey beehive. The brain is designed to reward us heavily when we feed it sugar, reinforcing the desire to go back for more.
  • Whether we eat caloric or non-caloric sweeteners, we are still activating the pleasure centers of the brain associated with sweet tastes.
  • These pleasure centers signal that there are concentrated sources of calories nearby and drive further consumption.

So by activating sweet receptors and telling the brain “sugar is available,” even if it’s not, we increase our appetites. One study (and there are probably more of these) showed that artificial sweeteners disrupt the body’s built-in calorie measuring ability.

But let’s face reality…we all live in the same world, a world where there are family parties and work events and desserts are going to happen. If given a choice, what should you reach for? I’d go for the real stuff. With the caveat that sugar intake should be VERY minimal, I’d rather go ahead and give my body the substance that it can process rather than some unknown chemical.

Sure, I’m going to get hit with a tired, sluggish feeling thirty minutes later, but on rare occasions, I’m not doing any lasting damage. And on rare occasions, artificial sweeteners probably won’t do any long-term damage either. But I feel better with the sugar that has some basis in evolution.

Again, better is a relative term. It’s better to smoke one pack of cigarettes than to smoke two packs. Cocaine is probably less harmful than crack. That doesn’t make it healthy. It’s even better to do neither.

sugar-cravings

Dealing With Sugar Cravings

Once people commit to cleaning up their diet, sugar cravings are often the hardest part. It’s the biggest derailleur of dietary plans. We’ve all been there; completely stuffed until the dessert cart rolls by or someone drops off the Girl Scout Cookies in the breakroom. I dealt with it and know that it’s not easy. Here are some tips I’ve found that work:
- Eat plenty of fat, protein, and nutrient-dense foods on a regular basis - These will help shunt your appetite. When the cake comes out, grab some almonds.
- Eat some fruit - The sweetness will help curb your sweet cravings.
- Find a good dark chocolate (or smart indulgence of your choice) - It has just enough sweetness for me to be satisfying without being unhealthy.
- Go for a walk - Just getting away from the temptation is usually helpful.
- Plan a few indulgences - I’m not a big fan of “cheat” meals, but early on, it can help keep things on track to know that in just another day or two, you can dig into some ice cream or a few pieces of candy. But you don’t need to eat the entire pint of Haagen-Dazs to indulge yourself.
- And finally, if you just can’t resist, have one bite. It won’t kill you and as long as you can control yourself beyond that point, can be helpful. I actually knew a guy that would take a bite, chew, then spit it out and that was enough to manage his cravings when they hit. It worked for him. Your mileage may vary. I’m better off avoiding than trying to indulge “just a little”.

Sugar cravings take a long time to go away. Long after you’ve figured out what to eat for breakfast instead of a bagel and cereal… Long after you’ve ditched the Rice-A-Roni in favor of asparagus… The cravings will resurface, often without warning. It’ll probably take a good six months or more to fully tame your sweet tooth. Just keep fighting the urges and find ways to kill them off without gnoshing the entire bag of Oreos.

Here are a few more articles with tips on eating real food, which will help control your cravings:

What are your thoughts on the real vs. artificial sweetener issue? How do/did you deal with you sugar cravings?

*Note: I typically don’t offer unsolicited advice to anyone, but since he yanked my chain… If people find out that I’m interested in nutrition and ask for advice, I’ll give it. Offering unsolicited advice rarely does anyone any good.

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