By Dr. Jack D’Angelo
It seems like whenever I turn around, there is another article on obesity and the secret to controlling the “epidemic.”
Over the last year, every time Mayor Bloomberg tried to drive home the fact that excessive soda consumption was a health issue, I kept thinking why is he so sure that artificial sweeteners are better for us than sugar? Do they really make people thinner? The number of Americans consuming sugar-free products has increased from less than 70 million in 1987 to more than 160 million in the year 2000. Yet our obesity numbers have continued to grow.
There are many artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA for their safety. These include acesulfame-k, saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, and neotame, among others. While they have absolutely no sugar content and are low in calories, they are significantly sweeter than regular sugars. In addition, they are found in many household products other than soft drinks.
Our bodies are evolutionarily wired to identify sugar in our diet, and a cascade of chemical events in our body work to make it available as an energy source. When we use artificial sweeteners, the “sugary” taste makes our bodies begin this chemical process but since it is never actually met with sugar, our appetites never get satiated so we actually remain hungry. In addition, there is some evidence that the amino acids that make up products like aspartame actually stimulate insulin and leptin secretion in our bodies. The normal feedback loop is interrupted because the body never actually gets sugar and therefore shuts off. The increasing levels of leptin and insulin may actually make us more resistant to their normal effects, thus promoting increased appetite and caloric intake.
In other words, there is increasing evidence that artificial sweeteners can actually make us hungrier. Several studies in the 1980s by the San Antonio Heart Study and the American Cancer Society indicated that the use of artificial sweeteners may actually increase our intake and thus promote weight gain.
So we return to the ultimate question: Is it sugar or artificial sweeteners that are contributing to the rapid increase in weight gain in our culture? I don’t have the answer, but I think it is worth pondering seriously because the pseudo science used by government for health policy may not be totally unbiased and may actually be missing the mark. The age-old answer right now suggests moderation is the key whether we choose to consume sugar, fat and protein or rely on artificial sweeteners and the plethora of low calorie products flooding the marketplace.