Let’s not beat around the bush: obesity is a huge problem in the Western world, and sugar must shoulder a lot of the blame. Recently, many accusatory gazes have been levelled at sugar. Not only is it a majorly unhealthy contributor to the obesity crisis, it’s also – or so some experts tell us – addictive. Sugar is like crack, gradually recalibrating our brains to crave more and more of it until, before we know it, we’re diabetic behemoths bemoaning our pudgy thighs and clogged arteries. So what’s the solution?
For many, the solution seems to come in the form of ‘diet’ drinks. Calorie-free sweeteners are a common phenomenon, with almost every sugary drink brand now coming with a ‘zero’, ‘diet’, or ‘lite’ alternative. These drinks, the theory runs, can assuage sugar cravings without actually causing any weight gain. Sounds too good to be true? Well, some people think it might be. For some time now there has been an undercurrent of mistrust surrounding artificial sweeteners. People suck on their teeth and look dubious when the name of aspartame arises in conversation. ‘Unnatural’, they say, cautiously. They may add that ‘It just makes you crave more junk’, or even cite vague internet articles about aspartame and its ilk causing horrible diseases like cancer. Is there any truth to these statements?
Not according to the nutritional authorities. The most which studies into the disease-causing potential of sweeteners like aspartame could come up with was a faint association between excessive aspartame consumption and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (also meyloma for men). In general, the international dietary guidelines for artificial sweeteners allow a maximum daily consumption far higher than that which most people actually consume. More detailed studies may reveal health risks in the future, but currently the research all points to the fact that artificial sweeteners are far better for you than actual sugar, with all of its inherent obesity risks. If aspartame can be the methadone to sugar’s heroin, so be it, say the doctors. Obesity is a huge, huge medical problem. If artificial sweeteners truly can help to wean people off sugar, then their benefits would far outweigh their potential drawbacks. Trouble is, just as there’s no real evidence that artificial sweeteners can harm you, there’s also no real evidence that they can actually help quell your sugar cravings.
Some say that artificially sweetened foods just make you more hungry. There’s no real evidence to prove this – but it may well be the case that synthetic sugar simply isn’t good enough at it’s job to stop you from craving the real thing. Far from making you hungrier, artificially sweetened foods and drinks simply don’t curb your cravings in the first place. If you want to be really healthy, it might be best not to try to fool your body, and just accept that you’ll need to steel your will to break the sugar cycle. Opt for water rather than diet drinks, and ride the cravings out.