Happy New Year, everyone! It is a great time of year and also the traditional time to commit to working on positive changes for our life and health. Hopefully some information in this column, and future columns, will provide you with suggestions and specific examples and/or recommendations for steps that can be taken to help improve your metabolic health.
In my initial column I recommended that we all could benefit from significantly decreasing or completely avoiding the intake of sugar. A question that many ask when they are told to avoid or significantly decrease their intake of sugar is: “are sugar substitutes/artificial sweeteners are OK to use?”
Although sugar substitutes do not have calories, there is recent research that indicates that the use of sugar substitutes/artificial sweeteners can have negative effects on our bodies that could outweigh any benefit of the decreased calories. As I said in my last article, we know more now, and we know that both weight and metabolic health problems are not just about “calories in, calories out,” but about the metabolic effect of different types of foods on our bodies.
While we do not have definitive answers at this time, research has shown that use of sugar substitutes/artificial sweeteners such as sucralose (brand name Splenda) can cause an insulin response which could lead to elevated insulin levels (which we do not want), and can also cause inflammation, increased triglyceride production, and increased cravings.
There has been other research that has shown that sugar substitutes can alter the gut microbiome (the beneficial bacteria in our stomach and digestive tract) which could lead to adverse health consequences and possibly contribute to the development of overweight/obesity. For these reasons it is best to avoid or at least significantly limit the use of sugar substitutes/artificial sweeteners.
If one is trying to stop drinking soft drinks, temporarily switching to diet soft drinks, then working to decrease and then stop the intake of these beverages over a few weeks would likely be OK, or occasionally using a sugar substitute/artificial sweetener in a recipe — but regular, ongoing use is not recommended.
One day there may be research that shows that certain sugar substitutes/artificial sweeteners are better than others, but it does not exist at this point in time, and we don’t currently have a good reason to believe that one is better than another.
People often ask about stevia since it is from the stevia plant and is “natural,” but there are many “natural” substances that can have negative health consequences. Sugar is “natural” coming from sugar cane or sugar beets, but it definitely has the potential to have many negative health effects including elevated blood sugar, elevated insulin levels, high triglycerides (triglycerides are a component of the lipid panel), inflammation, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and dental cavities to name a few.
Maybe one of your New Year’s resolutions is to stop drinking soft drinks and/or other sweetened beverages. Water is by far the best drink to choose. For people who are trying to get used to drinking water instead of soft drinks, sweet tea, sport drinks or juices, the lack of “flavor” may be difficult at first. Adding a little squeeze of lemon or lime juice to a glass or bottle of water can be helpful, and there are some waters that contain natural flavoring only (no sweeteners of any kind). For those who like carbonated beverages, there are seltzer waters, either plain or with natural flavor, that can be used. When purchasing these products be careful and thoroughly read the nutrition label and ingredient list because sometimes it can appear that a product has no sweeteners, but upon closer look, ingredients such as sucralose, stevia, acesulfame, saccharin, erythritol or others may be present.
Water is the main fluid human beings have existed on since the beginning of time, and should be the drink of choice for adults. Children need milk for calcium, and of course infants need breast milk or formula which provides their nutritional needs until they begin solid foods — but other than that, water is also good for them.
None of us “need” sweetened beverages or juices, and switching to water can be one of the best things we can do to help improve our health over time.
Laura Doty is a family nurse practitioner with certificates of advanced education in areas of metabolic health and weight management. She works with Dr. Erick Bulawa at Takoma Metabolic, Weight Management & Lifestyle Center. Anyone interested in the center’s program can call 423-278-1800. Take Back Your Health publishes bi-monthly in Greene County’s Accent.
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