Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?

And do they help or hurt your weight loss goals? Here’s what you should know before grabbing the Splenda, from Dr. Daniel Amen, clinical neuroscien­tist, psychiatrist, and brain imaging expert:

Rule #5: Dump artificial sweeteners and replace them with small amounts of natural sweeteners.

I love sweet things. I wish it wasn’t so, but growing up with a grandpa whom I adored who was a candy maker put me at a decided disadvantage. When I found it was essential to watch my weight, I was grateful for artificial sweeteners. No calories! How cool. Have as much as you want, I thought. Diet sodas became a regular companion for me and I drank a ton of them from age twenty-five to thirty-five. Then at age thirty-five, right as we started our brain imaging work, I found that I had problems getting off the floor when I played with my young children, because my joints hurt. Being a writer, I became even more concerned when my fingers and hands started to hurt as well.

Initially, I just wrote it off to old age. At thirty-five? Then as I became much more interested in learning about brain health, I discovered that there was a large body of information reporting that artificial sweeteners, like aspartame in diet sodas, may be associated with arthritis, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, memory problems, neurological problems, and a myriad of other maladies. I had a patient who told me her arthritis and headaches went away after she stopped aspartame. Another patient told me her confusion went away as she got rid of artificial sweeteners, and yet another patient told me that it was only after he stopped diet sodas that he was able to lose weight.

So I stopped aspartame and within four weeks, my arthritis went away. Just to test, as diet sodas have been a big part of my life, I tested it again with a diet soda at lunch. Within twenty minutes, my fingers started to hurt. So I decided to eliminate aspartame from my diet. The other artificial sweetener choices at the time either tasted bitter to me or had been reported to be possibly associated with cancer.

Then sucralose (Splenda) came along, and I felt as though I was in sweet heaven again, plus it had no aftertaste, and I did not have arthritis with it. In fact, sucralose was reported to be 600 times sweeter than sugar. Putting regular sugar in tea or lemonade was bland by comparison. Then, yet again, reports began to emerge that it was associated with health troubles, including decreasing the healthy bacteria in the intestinal tract.

Besides the reported health problems, one of the significant problems with artificial sweeteners is that they may increase sugar cravings. The empty calories prime the brain’s appetite centers to expect something good and when nothing comes, it wants more. Artificial sweeteners also desensitize your taste buds, and even naturally sweet things, such as a regular portion of sugar, are not enough to satisfy you.

Changing the sensitivity of your taste buds is clearly possible. If you were a diet soda drinker like me, remember how disgustingly sweet regular sodas tasted after you had not had them for a while? When you dump the artificial sweeteners your taste buds will adapt back to normal within a few weeks.

My favorite natural sweetener stevia, which has been reported to have anti-inflammatory and blood pressure lowering properties, has not been associated with negative health effects. Xylitol and agave are other natural sweeteners. With any of them, use sparingly, and you will be better off in the long run.

Another terribly disturbing trend is the artificial sweeteners that are ending up in gum, candy, packaged foods, sauces, vitamins, medications, nutritional powders, nutritional bars, popcorn, toothpaste, and water. The sweeter it is, these companies know, the more hooked you are likely to become. Fight back and do not collude with the food companies in your own demise.

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