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Published March 21, 2012, 11:30 PM

Mathison: Studies put sweeteners in their place

I read Meredith Holt’s article in the Monday SheSays section about artificial sweeteners with great interest. As a recovering Diet Coke addict, I always sensed that I didn’t feel quite right if I drank too much of it. And it certainly didn’t seem to help me lose weight.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, Areavoices blogger, INFORUM

I read Meredith Holt’s article in the Monday SheSays section about artificial sweeteners with great interest.

As a recovering Diet Coke addict, I always sensed that I didn’t feel quite right if I drank too much of it. And it certainly didn’t seem to help me lose weight.

In the medical world there are many doctors who feel it’s fine to use diet sodas and artificial sweeteners. I admit that I still drink one a week, as Diet Coke is in the fridge at my surgery center where I operate. But I would hear an occasional warning about headaches and allergies, and as mentioned in the Monday article, the link to increased craving for carbohydrates.

Dr. Mark Hyman, past medical director of Canyon Ranch Wellness Center and current president of the Institute for Functional Medicine, boldly states, “Artificial sweeteners cause obesity.” He points out a number of different research findings supporting his claim.

Research indicates that just the thought or smell of food initiates a whole set of hormonal and physiologic responses that get the body ready for food. When you trick your body and feed it non-nutritive or non-caloric sweeteners, like aspartame, acesulfame, saccharin, sucralose, sugar alcohols like malitol and xylitol, or even natural sweeteners like stevia, it confuses our metabolic system because they do not provide any calories.

Hyman references a study in the Journal of Behavioral Neuroscience has shown conclusively that using artificial sweeteners not only does not prevent weight gain but induces a whole set of physiological and hormonal responses that actually make you gain weight.

He summarized the findings as follows: The researchers proved this by giving two different groups of rats some yogurt. One batch of yogurt was sweetened with sugar. The other was sweetened with saccharin. They found that three major things happened over a very short period of time in the rats that were fed artificially sweetened yogurt.

First, the researchers found that the total food eaten over 14 days dramatically increased in the artificial sweetener group – meaning that the artificial sweetener stimulated their appetite and made them eat more.

Second, these rats gained a lot more weight and their body fat increased significantly.

And third (and this is very concerning) was the change in core body temperature of the rats fed the artificial sweeteners. Their core body temperature decreased, meaning their metabolism slowed down.

So not only did the rats eat more, gain more weight and have more body fat but they actually lowered their core body temperature and slowed their metabolism. As I have said many times before, all calories are not created equal.

The most astounding finding in the study was that even though the rats that ate the saccharin-sweetened yogurt consumed fewer calories overall than the rats that ate the sugar-sweetened yogurt, they gained more weight and body fat.

So what should we do with our sweet tooth? Hyman feels that eating a whole-foods diet with a low glycemic index, rich in phytonutrients (those derived from plants and contain protective, disease-preventing, compounds), and indulging in a few real sweet treats once in a while is a better alternative than tricking your body with artificial substances.

If you want to stay away from regular sugar, here are a few alternative suggestions that I found:

  1. Eat fresh fruit for your sweet treat.

  2. Dehydrated fruit, fruit sauces with no added sugar and fruit powders can be used to sweeten up cereal, smoothies and even baked goods. I never knew you could sprinkle banana powder. Palm sugar, also called coconut sugar, is granulated and tastes like mild brown sugar.

  3. Syrups: Honey, coconut sap, carob syrup and maple syrup can be used in drinks and baking. I have used agave syrup in the past but have read this is controversial because processing renders it high in fructose.

I think I’m ready to give up my once-a-week Diet Coke now.

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com.

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