A little while ago, I posted about 2 changes I’ve made for my health so far this year. You may recall that one of them was a big reduction in my intake of artificial sweeteners, and shortly after I published the post, I got an email from a lovely reader asking me for a bit more information. This is what she had to say:
Your recent post that addressed your reduction in consuming artificial sweeteners hit a lightning rod with me… I’d addicted to all three things that you mentioned you were cutting out of your diet: sugar-free gum, fat-free fruit-flavored single-serving yogurts and drink crystals. I’ll go through a pack of gum in one day… I crave/eat 3/4 fat-free yogurts a day… And I drink 2/3 liters of water with Crystal Light a day. Seriously, it’s bad!
With that being said, I’m really healthy otherwise… My diet consists of veggies and lean proteins. No sugar or simple carbs. However, I continue to be bloated and my digestion isn’t what it should be… As much fiber as I consume in veggies and fruit, I should be very regular but I’m not. I completely identify with you on your stomach sticking out like you’re 6 months pregnant! I exercise and eat healthy, but still have this problem… I’m 5’5″ and weigh 120lbs, so it’s not that I’m over-weight… I just have a bloating/digestion problem. In fact, I’ve considered being tested for Candidiasis.
You’re post indicated that since you’ve cut these three things out of your diet, your digestion, bloating and overall health has improved. Would you shed some light on why these three things that I love so much are so bad for me when on the surface they appear to be quite harmless? I need motivation to throw these things away ASAP!
I’ll preface this reader’s request post by saying that although I’m not a nutritionist or dietitian, I’ve done a ton of reading over the past few months about the effects that artificial sweeteners have on our bodies. One thing that is great and incredibly frustrating at the same time about nutrition is that the second one study proves x, another study is published that proves the complete opposite. Therefore, I’m not claiming that everything you’re about to read is set in stone. Artificial sweeteners receive tons of attention in the nutrition world and the jury is still out on their exact effects.
How artificial sweeteners are made
There are many different types of sugar substitutes in the foods we eat, and this post would be enormously long if I talked about each one. Therefore I’ll just focus on 2 of the most common, sucralose and aspartame.
- Sucralose: About 600x sweeter than sugar, this sweetener is made using a “process in which 3 hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar (sucrose) molecule are replaced with 3 chlorine atoms.” (Source).
- Aspartame: This substitute is about 200x sweeter than sugar and is made of 2 amino acids: phenylalanine and aspartic acid. These amino acids are also found in other protein-rich food sources like meats and dairy. To produce the final product often found in soft drinks and other ‘diet foods’, the amino acids are combined with methanol. (Source).
Regardless of the process required to make these sugar substitutes and the safety of them, one thing is definitely true: they are all created through processing in a labs, and are not whole foods.
How are they digested?
Depending on the sweetener, some supposedly pass through the body undigested. Others (like aspartame) are broken down into their original forms – methanol, phenylalanine, and aspartic acid, then absorbed into the bloodstream. Even though both aspartame and sucralose are FDA-approved, some studies warn that when methanol is digested, it creates formaldehyde, then formic acid. Although only small amounts are produced (and this is also the case for some other foods we ingest), it’s commonly known that formaldehyde is a toxin. Depending on whose opinions you read, some also consider it a carcinogen.
Our livers are responsible for trying to process toxins and remove them, but eventually when the liver can’t do any more or is overwhelmed by toxins, it becomes damaged. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not deliberately put toxins in my body if I can help it, even in small amounts. Of course, I realize that food, even food that is good for us like fresh produce, is one of the #1 vehicles for toxins and that sugar substitutes are not the only source, but every little bit counts, right?
How much is too much, and what are the side effects?
The FDA has made recommendations about daily maximums for chemical sweeteners, but it’s hard to find hard evidence that excess consumption of any of them always produces x, y, or z symptoms or diseases. This makes sense, since everyone has varying levels of toxins in their bodies depending on their exposure to smoking, the environment, pesticides, etc. Having said that, the stories that I’ve read about other people that have ditched diet drinks and other chemically sweetened products sound similar to mine. The two main things that stuck out to me were:
- Headaches – These wouldn’t happen every single time or immediately after eating an artificially sweetened food, but there was a point where I noticed myself popping Advils a lot more often than normal (which is almost never for me).
- Bloating – Most products warn that excess consumption could “produce bloating or gas”. I’d consider my previous gum chewing an excessive one, and indeed this was the case!
Some people claim to experience other symptoms – everything from dizziness, vision impairment, and anxiety to seizures. I can’t claim that any of this has happened to me, but the headaches and bloating were enough to make me want to kick my bad habits for good. At one point I kind of tricked myself into thinking that I had some sort of digestive problem, but really I was just in denial, thinking that the crap ‘foods’ I was eating weren’t doing anything bad to me. After spending far too many nights rolling around on my bed in agony, I finally decided that I didn’t want to put myself through it any more.
What is my ‘detox’ method?
Type ‘how to detox from artificial sweeteners’ into Google and you’ll find endless pages of solutions from vitamins and herbs to digestive enzymes and homeopathic remedies. Rather than going out and purchasing these things (which may or may not work), these are the steps I’ve taken:
- Dramatically reducing my gum chewing. My daily max is around 3-4 pieces, as opposed to the 20+ that it used to be.
- Eliminating drink crystals and artificially sweetened yogurts, and swapping them for water flavoured with citrus fruits, and cottage cheese or Greek yogurt.
- Drinking TONS of water. You’d think that filling your body with fluid would bloat you up like a water balloon, but it’s so amazing how much it has helped my digestion. I can only think that it is helping me to flush all the toxins from chemical sweeteners and other sources out of my body.
- Brushing my teeth and/or using whitening strips after meals. This is a great trick for anyone trying to prevent themselves from eating more or over-eating after finishing a meal. After brushing I never want to ruin my minty fresh mouth! Many off-the-shelf whitening strips have to be left on for at least 30 minutes, which gives your body plenty of time to recognize that it’s full.
- Eating foods that promote detoxification. These include cruciferous veggies (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli), sea vegetables, garlic, citrus, dark leafy greens, apples, cranberries, ginger, cinnamon, parsley, and teas (herbal, oolong, pu’erh and green)
The bottom line (according to me)
To sum all of this up, my decision to drastically reduce my artificial sweeteners intake wasn’t based on cold hard scientific facts (which I’ve learned, are extremely hard to find). It was quite simple really – just like many other products you’ll find on the shelves at the grocery store, they’ve undergone a lot of processing and are therefore not whole foods. For someone who tries to eat as cleanly as possible, and who has experienced her fair share of painful bloating and headaches, it just made sense. Ever since, I haven’t experienced either symptom. I’ve never been one to crave sugar intensely, but I’ve noticed my taste buds are even more sensitive to it now.
There are lots of things that can be done to get harmful things out of our system, but I think the most important is to just stop them coming in. Google says it takes somewhere between 21 and 28 days to form a habit, and I’ve been going pretty strong since January 1st. If the reader’s email at the beginning of this post sounds like you could have written it yourself, know that if I can kick a habit that I built up over roughly 10 years, you can do it too.
Interested in learning more? These are some of the resources from WebMD that I found helpful:
- Comparing artificial sweeteners
- Which artificial sweetener is right for you?
- How can I stop drinking so much soda?
Back to lighter reading tomorrow!