Saturday, May 21, 2011

Common Question

In keeping with my nutrient coaching theme, I thought it would be fun to start addressing some of the common questions that I receive from clients on a daily basis. With so much information and changing viewpoints on ingredients and food products, it is no wonder that we are all a bit confused as to the truth behind many nutritional claims. Here is my answer to the question regarding the safety of sugar substitutes.

Sugar substitutes

Few of us are really aware of how many new Splenda® products there are in the supermarkets. We’ve been told that this artificial sweetener is different from all the past failures — Sweet’N Low®, NutraSweet®, etc. — and according to the claims, that this Splenda is the perfect sugar substitute: as sweet as sugar, but no calories; as sweet as sugar, but no surge in insulin; as sweet as sugar, but no side effects or long-term health damage.

Splenda side effects

Observational evidence shows that there are side effects of Splenda, including skin rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, muscle aches, headaches, intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain. These show up at one end of the spectrum — in the people who have an allergy or sensitivity to the sucralose molecule. But no one can say to what degree consuming Splenda affects the rest of us.

The health effects of sugar

What happens to our metabolism, on all that sugar? A sugar craving (which is really a craving for an energy and serotonin surge) becomes a habit. What’s more, this process is exacerbated by stress — because that’s when your body needs immediate energy and serotonin.

Over time, your body loses the ability to make enough sugar-digesting enzymes to meet the demand, and sugar sensitivity develops. Women tend to notice this more during perimenopause, when excess sugar and other simple carbohydrates trigger symptoms of hormonal imbalance.

Excess sugar consumption also upsets the balance of intestinal flora in your digestive tract and can cause symptoms of intestinal distress such as bloating, cramping, and gas (for more on this, see our section on digestion). Other symptoms of sugar sensitivity are headaches, insomnia, aggression, panic attacks, irritability, mood swings, and depression. Too much sugar can deplete levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter whose deficiency is linked to depression. What’s worse, low levels of serotonin actually trigger more sugar cravings.

Dangers in aspartame

Possible side effects of aspartame include headaches, migraines, panic attacks, dizziness, irritability, nausea, intestinal discomfort, skin rash, and nervousness. Some researchers have linked aspartame with depression and manic episodes. It may also contribute to male infertility.


Saccharin, the first widely available chemical sweetener, is hardly mentioned any more. Better-tasting NutraSweet took its place in almost every diet soda, but saccharin is still an ingredient in some prepared foods, gum, and over-the-counter medicines. Remember those carcinogen warnings on the side of products that contained saccharin? They no longer appear because industry testing showed that saccharin only caused bladder cancer in rats. Most researchers agree that in sufficient doses, saccharin is carcinogenic in humans. The question is, how do you know how much artificial sweeteners your individual body can tolerate?

That being said, some practitioners think saccharin in moderation is the best choice if you must have an artificially sweetened beverage or food product. It’s been around a relatively long time and seems to cause fewer problems than aspartame. I don’t argue with this recommendation, but I encourage you to find out as much as you can about any chemical before you ingest it.

Artificial sweeteners are body toxins. They are never a good idea for pregnant women, children or teenagers — despite the reduced sugar content — because of possible irreversible cell damage. If you decide it’s worth the risks, then go ahead, but pay attention to your body and your cravings. Once you start tracking your response to artificial sweeteners, it may surprise you.

Stevia and sorbitol — natural alternatives to artificial sweeteners

For many years, diabetics have used products sweetened with polyalcohol sugars like sorbitol, xylitol, malitol, and mannitol. These are natural sweeteners that do not trigger an insulin reaction. (Xylitol can be derived from birch tree pulp.) They have half the calories of sugar and are not digested by the small intestine. Most polyalcohol sugars have no side effects with the exception of sorbitol, a natural laxative that causes diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, bloating and flatulence.

For this reason, the herb stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) which has been used for over 400 years without ill effect is recommended. It’s 200–300 times sweeter than sugar, so just a small portion of stevia will sweeten even a strong cup of tea. Stevia can be used for anything you might use sugar in, including baking. It is naturally low in carbohydrates. You can buy stevia at most health food stores and over the web.

Artificial sweeteners are chemicals, not food! They have no calories because they don’t nourish your body in anyway — they’re toxins your body has to clear, or, depending on how well you detoxify, store.

  • Take a daily multivitamin to support your body’s nutritional needs.
  • Eat protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates for breakfast. Simple carbs and sugar fire up your insulin receptors and spark those sugar cravings.
  • Shop the perimeter of your grocery store — avoid the processed foods in the center aisles. Read all labels and be wary of food that contains apartame, neotame, saccharin, acesulfame K, or sucralose.
  • Minimize or avoid products that have sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or corn syrup near the top of their ingredient list. Sugar can also be disguised as evaporated cane juice, cane sugar, beet sugar, glucose, sucrose, maltose, maltodextrin, dextrose, sorbitol, fructose, corn sugar, fruit juice concentrate, barley malt, caramel, and carob syrup.
  • Keep a bowl of fresh ripe fruit nearby to snack on, to relieve your sugar cravings. Think primitive and eat fruit that is in season. The fresher the fruit, the more succulent and satisfying it will be. You may find you don’t need anything sweeter!
  • If you are craving something sweet, don’t feel guilty. Most of the time, uncontrollable or patterned cravings stem from a malfunctioning metabolism or low serotonin.
  • Indulge yourself sometimes. Remember, we have sweet taste buds for a reason. Try a piece of fruit first — you may find your craving diminishes. If you still want a piece of chocolate or pie, go ahead! Just make it a treat, not a habit.
  • Remember that wine and alcohol are sugar.
  • Take a short walk after eating and breathe in deeply.
  • Focus more on what you’d like to cook and eat than what you shouldn’t. If you listen to your body, it may surprise you with a craving for eggs, not a diet soda.

Finding comfort in the right places

After taking a closer look at what you eat, it may also be useful for you to examine the role sweet food plays in your life. This often ties in to deep associations and emotions buried in childhood. Perhaps you always crave sugar in the mornings because you associate family, home, and security with the pancake breakfasts your mother used to make.

But just as a pancake breakfast won’t satisfy your emotional longings, fake sugar won’t feed your body’s needs — nor real sugar, for that matter. So I encourage you to nourish yourself from the inside out, with healthy food, self-care, and healthy relationships. In life there is bound to be some bitterness — the secret is to restore enough balance to delight in the sweet.

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