You know a diet high in sugar isn’t good for you, but you’ve heard some questionable things about alternative sweeteners as well, which may have you wondering if you’re doing yourself any favors reaching for that instead.
Kaylee Jacks, a sports nutritionist at Texas Health Sports Medicine, provides her insight to help settle the debate on which is better for you, and what you should be mindful of.
Looking at the Guidelines
First things first, sugar isn’t inherently bad. In fact, our bodies use sugar as a major energy source, converting the carbohydrates we eat into glucose that enters our bloodstream for fuel and energy. So, consuming natural sources of sugar and a moderate amount of carbs is healthy, however, there’s a big difference between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans say added sugars should make up no more than 10 percent of your daily calories. That’s about 10 teaspoons (40 grams) for someone eating 1,600 calories. The American Heart Association’s recommendation is even lower — about 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women and 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men.
“Artificial sugar does not have calories and therefore does not provide the body with energy. Therefore, one could argue sugar is better than artificial sugar because it is in fact essential for survival,” Jacks explains. “However, it matters where those sugars are coming from. If you were mostly getting those sugars from quality carbohydrates, such as whole grains and fruits, versus less refined grains, simple sugars, and candies, you could make a stronger argument in favor of sugar versus artificial sugar. This is because the quality carbohydrates also nourish the body with other essential nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals and in some cases protein and healthy fat.”
There are no set intake guidelines for sugar substitutes like there is for sugar. But Jacks notes that there are some circumstances in which opting for artificial sugar may make more sense and help keep you on track regarding sugar consumption.
“We talked about how sugar provides energy, while artificial sugars don’t, which makes quality carbs worthwhile because they provide both energy and nutrition. But if you’re one to overindulge in simple carbohydrates, which are ‘energy dense’ but are limited in their nutritional value, such as candies or ice cream, artificial sugar can satiate that sweet tooth without too much implication on your health.”
Consuming too many simple carbohydrates can put you at high risk of chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, obesity, and obesity-related illnesses such as heart disease or stroke.
While consuming artificial sweeteners won’t directly aid in weight gain, you should be mindful of the false sense of security that can come when consuming these items, tricking your brain into craving rich, high-calorie foods that can lead to weight can.
Is Natural Better Than Artificial?
Sugar is found naturally in many foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products. It can also go by many names depending on its source:
Then there are natural sugars that are extracted from plants that are then modified to be 200 to 700 times sweeter than regular table sugar, such as sucralose (Splenda®) and stevia rebaudiana (Truvia®). Many health-conscious consumers opt for these sugar substitutes because they are advertised as being a natural, low- to no-calorie alternative to sugar, however, these plant sugars must first be purified using methods involving chemicals, such as methanol, before they’re ready for consumption.
Lastly, we have artificial sweeteners, or sugar alternatives that do not come from a natural source, such as aspartame (NutraSweet® and Equal®) and saccharin (Sweet’N Low®).
Although these sweeteners have been accused of causing cancer, there have not been any direct links between artificial sweeteners and an increased occurrence of cancer.
“Research is inconsistent and cannot support claims that artificial sugar consumption is related to increased appetite, cancer and other health concerns,” Jacks adds. “But the most constant correlation research has found is between the increased use of artificial sugar and the increased cases of inflammation, specifically in the gut. Over the recent years, gastrointestinal issues have become more common with rises in IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or UC (ulcerative colitis). Yet, since many dietary and lifestyle factors have changed in recent years, the jury is still out when it comes to solely blaming this on artificial sugar consumption. For now, it’s just purely a correlation.”
As for diabetics, since artificial sweeteners are metabolized more slowly, replacing sugar with an artificial option may help stabilize blood glucose levels over a longer period, potentially lowering your A1C count.
So, which is better? Unfortunately, Jacks says it’s difficult to rank one supreme because there are so many individual factors that come into play.
“Consumption of artificial sweeteners has become increasingly popular in the past 20-30 years as a healthier alternative to sugar. But it is difficult to make a blanket statement that sugar is definitively better or worse than sugar alternatives 100% of the time with 100% of people and their unique health risks,” Jacks says. “However, what’s not difficult to proclaim is that too much sugar and/or sugar alternatives are not the best for your health.”
Jacks emphasizes moderation, which seems to be the golden ticket for almost everything. Consuming a well-balanced nutrient-dense diet from whole foods is the most optimal for health.
Navigating proper nutrition is a journey we all have to face every single day, and it’s definitely not easy, especially when you’re craving something a little indulgent or don’t want to painstakingly read nutrition labels for every little thing. Treating yourself every now and then isn’t going to derail any health or nutrition goals you may have but being cognizant of how much sugar — natural or artificial — you consume is important.
Working with a certified nutritionist can help guide you on your journey and answer any questions you have along the way. Call 1-877-THR-WELL (1-877-847-9355) to find out what nutrition services your local Texas Health location offers.