Tyler Robbins Fitness

B.Sc. Biochemistry, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Certified CrossFit Trainer (CCFT/CF-L3), USA Weightlifting Level 1

Artificial Sweeteners - "Free of calories, but not free of consequences"

In case you've missed it, Diet Soda (pop) has been in the news a bit lately. The American Diabetes Association released the results from a study conducted recently that found that the artificial sweeteners found in diet soft drinks is actually making people fatter.

This is not entirely new, as this notion has been around for some time, other similar studies have also been done in past about this very same issue. Let's discuss what is at play here so that we can all understand what these studies are showing us.

I believe at this stage in the game, you have all heard of, and know where and what your pancreas is. More importantly, you may have also heard about one of the main functions of your pancreas, which is to release a hormone called insulin.

Your blood sugar concentration, or amount of sugar in your blood, is kept at a relatively stable state between 3.6-5.8mM (mmol/L) at all times. There are specific times throughout the day, most notably after you eat, when your blood sugar will spike to meet the demands of the food you ingest. Most of you may recognize the term "sugar spike", as this is a natural occurrence in the process of digesting food for energy. Your blood sugar levels are lowest in the morning (hence why you need to eat breakfast...get it...break the fast?) and travel up and down on waves throughout the day depending on what you eat.

As you ingest something with carbohydrates in it, the sugars are absorbed through your intestines and enter your bloodstream. Your pancreas receives a signal from the brain to release insulin which essentially allows all cells in your body to absorb this quick-burning energy source. That is why after you eat something sugary, your blood sugar levels quickly rise, but then fall back down to the 3.6-5.8 range rather quickly as your insulin allows your cells to gobble up all of the sugar...great!

The dangerous part out of all of these processes occurs when either the blood sugar concentration level drops too low (hypoglycemia) which can lead to death, or if your blood sugar concentration is at a consistently high level (pre-diabetes or diabetes).

So how do artificial sweeteners play into this puzzle you ask? Let me explain. When you eat something sweet, such as a piece of fruit, a Snickers bar, or a big gulp, a couple of things happen. The food stuff (if you want to call a Big Gulp "food") dances around on your tongue, making you taste something sweet on your taste buds, which lights up a specific part of the brain. Cool, that's step one. Your brain realizes that you have just ingested something sweet so in planning ahead, it sends a signal to your pancreas to wake up and be ready for the flood of sugar that is coming. The food stuff reaches your stomach where digestion begins, and then proceeds onto the small intestine for absorption into the blood stream. Once it hits the bloodstream, the insulin is already there, waiting to act like a transport to take all of this sugar to your cells for energy.

The problem that arises with artificial sweeteners is that they "taste" sweet to your tongue, but when they actually reach the blood stream, they actually walk right on by your insulin hormone molecules because they are of no use to your insulin. This is where some complications begin to happen and where studies are now finding out what happens next.

That insulin that is now looking for sugar, which it finds in your 3.6-5.8mM of free-floating sugar causing your blood sugar to fall out of range. Your brain quickly recognizes this and sounds the alarm bells that you are low on sugar, which causes you to crave, guess what? Yup, sugar! This is one downfall of those "zero calorie" sweeteners as they sure are free of calories, but they are also free of purpose! At least real sugar has a role in the body, even though most people consume far too much of it. These artificial sweeteners are found to be causing people to consume more calories due to their lack of nutritional value. Talk about a total role-reversal!

Not only that, but studies are now also finding that the more artificial sweeteners we consume, the higher risk we run of Type-2 diabetes due to prolonged or chronic elevated blood sugar levels!

Sure, these studies are referring to diet soft drinks, but if you actually look around you, there are a ton of products that are now touting their "fat-free" and "zero-cal" alternatives. Well guess what, all "fat-free" means is that they took out the fat and replaced it with either sugar or sweetener, and "zero-cal" means that you are putting something completely useless into your body that is promoting more bad than good. Products on the market today such as yogurts are especially bad for these types of "zero-cal" slogans, but they are not the only ones.

I can hear people now, "You just can't eat anything these days, EVERYTHING is bad for you!" I hear this comment all the time. Wrong! Drink water. What is so wrong with water? Sure, it can be bland sometimes, but get creative. Throw in a lemon wedge or make some tea (without the sugar or artificial sweetener of course). Keep in mind the amount of calories your are consuming from drinking sugary beverages, or the amount of calories you are about to tack on from consuming a "zero-cal" alternative.

-Tyler Robbins