Physical Health

If It’s Calorie-Free, Why Am I Gaining Weight?

February 22, 2012

It all makes sense.

Sugar is the enemy!  It’s high in calories and short on nutrition.  And in this generation of type two diabetes, who wants the white powdery stuff around anyway?

The perfect solution would be to find a calorie-free substitute for sugar and use it to sweeten beverages, desserts, yogurts and puddings.  It would cut the amount of calories you consume and it should go a long way to solving the epidemic of the overweight and obese.  Sounds good, right?

But guess what? It isn’t working!

Artificial sweeteners aren’t only failing to help people lose weight; a new study shows that people who drink diet soft drinks actually gain weight.

The findings come from eight years of data collected by Sharon P. Fowler, MPH, and colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio.

“What didn’t surprise us was that total soft drink use was linked to overweight and obesity,” Fowler tells WebMD. “What was surprising was when we looked at people only drinking diet soft drinks, their risk of obesity was even higher.”

In fact, when the researchers took a closer look at their data, they found that nearly all the obesity risk from soft drinks came from diet sodas.

“There was a 41% increase in risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day,” Fowler says.

And the problems don’t end with weight gain: a study conducted at Harvard Medical School using the Framingham Heart Study showed that consuming diet drinks may actually increase the risk of heart disease.

Ravi Dhingra, M.D. and her colleagues looked at nearly 6,000 middle-aged men and women who had medical examinations every four years.  Those who consumed more than one diet or regular soda per day experienced a 25% increased risk of impaired fasting glucose (pre-diabetes) and high triglyceride levels.  They had a 31% greater chance of becoming obese, a 32% higher chance of low HDL levels (good cholesterol) and a 44% increased risk of metabolic syndrome.

A more recent study suggests that the popular drinks may increase the risk of stroke, myocardial infarction, and vascular death. “People who had diet soda every day experienced a 61% higher risk of vascular events than those who reported drinking no soda,” said lead investigator Hannah Gardener, ScD, an epidemiologist from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine in Florida.

Previous studies have suggested a link between diet soda consumption and the risk for metabolic syndrome and diabetes. But this is the first time diet drinks have been associated with vascular events.

So the question is: how does something that has less calories cause you to become obese and put your cardiovascular health at risk?

Several theories abound, but the overall consensus is that artificial sweeteners may actually encourage you to partake of more servings of food or drinks than would sugar.  It appears from studies conducted on animals that sugar substitutes interfere with the body’s natural ability to count calories based on the food’s sweetness.

Additionally, many foods containing sugar substitutes may still be high in fat and total calories.  But because we see the sacred “sugar-free,” we eat more of it.

What are these sweeteners and just how sweet are they?  Aspartame, commonly known as NutraSweet, is 200 times sweeter than sugar.  Saccharin, which is marketed as Sweet ‘n Low (among others brands) is also 200 times sweeter than sugar. One of the more popular sweeteners today is Sucralose, which we see on the shelves as Splenda. It is 600 times sweeter than sugar.

Although all of these sweeteners have been approved for use and determined safe by government authorities, their continued use has been shown to be problematic.  It should be noted that the Center for Science in the Public Interest, citing a study done by the National Cancer Institute, still maintains that saccharin in heavy amounts causes cancer of the bladder.  Some of these sweeteners are known to cause bloating and stomach discomfort as well as rashes/flushing, panic-like agitation, dizziness and numbness, diarrhea, swelling, muscle aches, headaches (migraines), intestinal cramping, bladder issues, and stomach pain.  This is particularly true of people that have food sensitivities and allergies to begin with.

Many people have chosen to use a more natural product as a sweetener: Stevia.  Stevia is a genus of about 240 species of herbs and shrubs in the sunflower family. As a sweetener and sugar substitute, Stevia’s taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar, although some of its extracts may have a bitter or licorice-like aftertaste at high concentrations.

With its steviol glycoside extracts having up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar, Stevia has garnered attention with the rise in demand for low-carbohydrate, low-sugar food alternatives. Because stevia has a negligible effect on blood glucose, it is attractive as a natural sweetener to people on carbohydrate-controlled diets.

What we do know is that eating real, whole foods is a better way to lose weight and to stay healthy.  Whole foods, such as whole grains and breads, tend to fill you up more and lengthen the amount of time before you feel hungry again.  Diet products almost always tend to leave you wanting more, and if you want more, you will take more, because after all, it’s meant for people who are dieting!  It’s sugar-free!

So remember: just because a certain food is marketed as a “diet” product doesn’t mean it will help you lose weight. The complete opposite might be true.

The bottom line: consuming wholesome, healthy foods as opposed to those containing artificial sweeteners will more likely keep you healthier, thinner and free of heart disease.

 

Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. certified personal trainer and a lifestyle fitness coach with over 17 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It!  He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at alan@loseit.co.il.