The Truth About Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners
Updated: Oct 2
We all have a craving every now and then. Whether it's for a sugary treat or a desire to sweeten our drinks, sugar often finds its way into our lives. But we need to be mindful of the impact of sugar and artificial sweeteners on our health. In this blog post, we'll explore sugar, natural alternatives like maple syrup, agave, and honey, and uncover the effects of artificial sweeteners on our general health, blood sugar levels, and gut health.
Understanding Sugar: How Does the Body Use It?
Before we explore the alternatives, let's understand how our bodies process sugar. When we consume sugar, whether it's from natural sources like fruits or added sugars in processed foods, our body breaks it down into glucose. Glucose is the primary source of energy for our cells and is vital for our bodily functions. But the key lies in consuming sugar in moderation, and choosing healthier alternatives to shop bought sweet foods which are often much sweeter than they need to be.
Excessive Sugar Consumption = Blood Sugar Spikes
The western diet has become notorious for its excessive sugar consumption, which can lead to various health issues. When we consume large amounts of refined sugars, our blood sugar levels spike rapidly. This sudden surge triggers a release of insulin from the pancreas to regulate blood sugar. Over time, this roller coaster of blood sugar spikes and subsequent insulin release can contribute to insulin resistance and increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome.
Sugar and Energy Levels
While sugar provides a quick burst of energy, it's often followed by a crash. Those sudden drops or dips in blood sugar levels can leave us feeling fatigued, irritable, and craving for more sugar. It becomes a vicious cycle that affects our overall energy levels and productivity.
Weight Management and Thyroid Health
Excessive sugar consumption has also been linked to weight gain and obesity. High-sugar foods are often calorie-dense but lack the essential nutrients that keep us feeling full and satisfied. This can lead to overeating, making it challenging to maintain a healthy weight. Thyroid health can be influenced by sugar and artificial sweeteners. Excessive sugar can lead to weight gain, inflammation, and insulin resistance, potentially disrupting thyroid function. Artificial sweeteners may impact gut health, indirectly affecting the thyroid. Moderation and a balanced diet are crucial for thyroid health, especially for those with thyroid conditions.
Try my Free 5 Day email Sugar Free Challenge to reduce your sugar intake and lose weight. We will focus on fuelling your body with nutritious and delicious meals. You’ll become aware of the sugars in your food, so you can make more informed choices and curb your sweet cravings. Now, let's look at the natural sugar alternatives.
Natural Sugar Alternatives
Are Natural Sugar Alternatives Healthy?
Thankfully, there are natural alternatives to refined sugars that can satisfy our sweet cravings without as many negative health consequences as shop bought sweet treats. Remember, it's still important to consume these natural alternatives in moderation as they have a similar effect on our blood sugar. Let's explore some popular options:
Maple syrup is a delicious natural sweetener extracted from the sap of maple trees. It contains antioxidants, minerals like manganese and zinc, and provides a unique flavour profile. When using maple syrup, opt for the pure, organic variety without added sugars or artificial ingredients.
Derived from the agave plant, refined agave syrup is a popular sweetener. It's sweeter than sugar and has a lower glycaemic index, meaning it causes a slower rise in blood sugar levels. However, it's important to note that refined agave still contains high levels of fructose and should be used in moderation.
Honey, a natural sweetener produced by bees, has been used for centuries. It contains antioxidants, enzymes, and trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. Choose raw, unfiltered honey to maximise its health benefits.
The Impact of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that provide sweetness without the calories. They are commonly found in diet drinks, sugar-free snacks, and processed foods marketed as "healthy." But are these sugar free products really healthy, and can they help you lose weight? This is probably one of the questions I get asked the most in clinic! While they may seem like a guilt-free alternative, there are important considerations to keep in mind.
General Health Concerns of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, have long been a topic of debate in the health community. Some recent studies suggest potential negative effects on metabolism, gut microbiota, and even an increased risk of certain health conditions.
The original FDA approval of aspartame has always been highly controversial. There is now overwhelming evidence that aspartame disrupts the gut microbiome, this study also showed aspartame promotes insulin resistance in rats. A 2021 review highlights concerns beyond cancer risk and insulin resistance. Most recently this study in 2023 followed 3088 people over 25 years! It showed long term use of aspartame was associated with increased visceral fat and a higher body mass index, which is also associated with insulin resistance.
The world health organisation’s specialised cancer agency the IARC has recently declared aspartame a possible carcinogen after a complete review of thousands of studies.
Even with all these safety concerns, it has been concluded that more research is still needed to fully understand the impact of artificial sweeteners on our health.
Blood Sugar and Insulin Response
Contrary to popular belief, artificial sweeteners can still affect blood sugar and insulin levels. Although they don't have a significant impact on blood glucose, they can trigger insulin release, potentially disrupting our body's natural regulatory mechanisms.
Gut Health and Microbiota
Emerging research suggests a potential link between artificial sweeteners and gut health. Some studies indicate that these sweeteners may alter the balance of beneficial gut bacteria, affecting digestion and overall gut health. Sweeteners made with sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal problems such as bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. Further research is still needed to fully understand the complex relationship between artificial sweeteners and gut health.
Sweetness with a Healthier Twist
When it comes to sweetening our foods and drinks, finding healthier alternatives to refined sugars and using less is essential. Natural sweeteners like maple syrup, refined agave, and honey offer distinct flavours and some small beneficial compounds. However, moderation is still key to maintaining a balanced diet and overall health.
While artificial sweeteners provide a low-calorie option, it's important to be cautious of their potential effects on general health, blood sugar levels, and gut health. Opting for natural alternatives whenever possible and using less can be a healthier choice. Try gradually reducing your sugar intake as it takes about four weeks for your taste buds to adjust. Remember, balance is key in nutrition. By being mindful of our sugar consumption and keeping it below the recommended amount, we can support our overall health and well-being.
Excessive Sugar is Bad for Your Health
Excessive sugar consumption has been linked to several diseases and health conditions. Here are some notable ones:
1. Type 2 Diabetes. Consuming large amounts of added sugars over time can contribute to insulin resistance, a condition where the body becomes less responsive to the hormone insulin. Insulin resistance is a key factor in the development of type 2 diabetes.
2. Obesity. High-sugar diets, especially those containing sugary beverages, have been associated with weight gain and increased risk of obesity. These foods are often calorie-dense but provide little nutritional value, leading to overconsumption and difficulty in maintaining a healthy weight.
3. Cardiovascular Disease. Excessive sugar consumption has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. High-sugar diets can contribute to high blood pressure, inflammation, elevated triglyceride levels, and reduced levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, all of which are risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
4. Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). High sugar intake, particularly in the form of fructose, has been associated with the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Excessive fructose consumption can lead to the accumulation of fat in the liver, potentially causing inflammation and impairing liver function.
5. Tooth Decay. Sugar is a primary contributor to tooth decay. Bacteria in the mouth feed on sugars and produce acids that attack tooth enamel, leading to cavities and dental problems.
6. Metabolic Syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol levels, and excess abdominal fat, which increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Excessive sugar consumption is associated with the development of metabolic syndrome.
7. Cancer. While the direct relationship between sugar consumption and cancer is still under investigation, high-glycaemic diets and excessive sugar intake can contribute to obesity and chronic inflammation, which are known risk factors for certain types of cancer.
It's important to note that excessive sugar consumption alone may not directly cause these diseases. Lifestyle factors, overall diet, genetics, and other variables also play significant roles. However, reducing added sugar intake and opting for a balanced, nutritious diet can help mitigate the risk of developing these conditions and promote overall health.
Try my Free 5 Day Sugar Free Challenge to reduce your sugar intake and reset your taste buds. We will focus on feeling good and fuelling your body with nutritious and delicious meals. You’ll become aware of what’s in your food, so you can make more informed choices.
Discover the power of nutrition! Book your free call with Lisa to find out how nutritional therapy can help you curb your sugar cravings and lose weight.
Please note: This blog post is meant for informational purposes only and should not replace personalised advice.