When your coffee cold brew needs a little help, there’s no lack of options to sweeten the taste. Blue packets, pink packets and white packets are ready to take the dive into your coffee—but should you choose a sugar substitute over old-fashioned sugar?
If you’re wondering which is the best choice, you’re not alone. Knowing a few details about these products and how they align with your health goals can help you decide.
Is There Really a Problem with Sugar?
Sugar is sweet and sweet tastes good. The first food infants consume, breast milk or formula tastes sweet. It means safety and satisfaction. As adults, most of us can relate to this when we seek out “comfort foods,” warm, high-carbohydrate foods, and very often, sweet to the taste.
Sugar is not bad, as long as grandma’s age-old adage applies: everything in moderation. The problem with sugar—and sweet-tasting things in general—is that moderation is hard to achieve.
That’s because with sugar, the more we eat, the more we tend to want. The more we want, the more we eat or drink. Compounding the problem, we’re not just eating the sugar we know about. Most processed foods contain added sugar in everything from tomato and barbecue sauce, protein and granola bars, yogurt and even Chinese takeout. The result is higher calorie consumption and weight gain, along with related health problems.
Figuring out the best course of action for weight loss or health plan means knowing how much sugar we consume and what to do about it.
Am I Eating That Much?
Unless you’re strictly eating your own homegrown food, there’s a chance you are eating too much sugar. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar every day. (Compare this to Canadians, who take in an average of 14 teaspoons of sugar daily!)
This amount of sugar wreaks havoc on your cholesterol levels and puts you at a higher risk of heart disease, stiff joints, wrinkles, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, kidney problems, bone fractures and vision loss.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10 percent of your daily calories come from added sugars. The average 2,000 calorie diet should contain no more than 200 calories worth of sugar (about 12 teaspoons) or 50 grams. The reasons go far beyond your pant size.
A study published by the Journal of American Medicine indicates that those who consume 25 percent or more of their calories each day in the form of sugar more than double their risk of dying from heart disease over 15 years.
With that said, anywhere you can reduce the amount of sugar you’re taking in can help your health. According to the International Food Information Council, about 75 percent of American adults are trying to consume less sugar.
Enter the sugar substitute.
Are Artificial Sweeteners a Good Option?
Many people associate artificial sweeteners with cancer—but the reality is that sweeteners have been studied quite a bit. The National Cancer Institute states that there is no evidence that any sweeteners approved by the FDA are harmful when consumed in moderate amounts.
That’s good news because sugar substitutes can help to drastically reduce the amount of sugar from your diet. If you’re counting calories, that’s 160 calories less if you drink a can of sugar-free cola with artificial sweetener.
They also do not raise your blood sugar levels and can help those with diabetic or prediabetic conditions treat an occasional sweet tooth. And speaking of teeth, unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners will not contribute to cavities. They are not, however, the magic pill.
The Potential Pitfalls of Sugar Substitutes
Using artificial sweeteners can sabotage weight loss, as research shows that drinking diet sodas regularly actually leads to a larger waist.
That may be because the diet soda could ease your conscience about supersizing the fries. When we rationalize about how many calories we’re saving, we tend to eat more.
Not being mindful of calorie deprivation can also have an unintended effect, causing unanticipated hunger and overeating. Some nutritionists believe sugar substitutes do not produce the same feeling of satisfaction in your brain as when you eat a sugary snack, so you are more likely to look for more to eat.
One of the biggest problems with artificial sweeteners, however, may be in how well they work. Some are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. They change the way we taste so that we come to expect a higher potency of sweetness in our sugar receptors.
Craving highly sweetened foods means the natural sugars we could enjoy in an apple or banana may no longer register as sweet enough; other healthful foods such as vegetables will be unpalatable.
Mindful Eating Is the Key to Moderation
Stay aware of what you are eating and why. If you’re a regular soda drinker who takes in a can a day, it’s usually best to go with diet soda.
A 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 135 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar on average. That comes to 32 pounds of sugar, 49,000 calories a year, and can tack on an extra 16 pounds of weight!
When it comes to sugar, it’s easy to get tricked into consuming more than you even know. Sugars and syrups are added to 85% of processed foods.
The best thing you can do is learn how to read the ingredients list. If you notice the label includes high-fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, fructose, glucose, lactose, sucrose or molasses, that means it has sugar added in.
How to Curb Your Sugar Cravings
Although it may be impossible to completely get rid of sugar cravings, there are things you can do to help yourself consume less sugar and sugar substitutes.
It may sound counterintuitive, but the way to reduce your sugar cravings is to eat fewer sweet things.
When you consume foods or drinks sweetened by either sugar or artificial sweeteners, your body becomes accustomed to a certain level of sweetness that you then desire constantly.
Minimize your dependence by cutting back on sweeteners of any kind and opting for something more nutrient-dense, such as oatmeal, when your sweet tooth strikes.
If you are hooked on sugary drinks like soda or sweet tea, the ultimate goal is to transition to water; however, switching from full sugar to diet drinks may be a good way to help you make a move.
If you are concerned about your daily sugar intake or have questions about your diet, you may benefit from talking with a medical professional.
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