Ask anyone why the obesity rates are increasing, and they will look at you like you're stupid. Doesn't everyone already know? However, you may be surprised at how much the answers vary. At one point, people thought it was our fat intake (hence the low-fat craze and inventions like low-fat cooking oil spray can), and then some people raged on about carbohydrates and are now afraid of eating carrots and sweet potatoes.
These days, one of the top questions I get is my stance on sweeteners and if someone can drink diet soda while trying to lose weight.
Also read: Why you shouldn't fast-track your weight loss journey
Sugar is always a popular debate. Sugar tastes delicious, and it's very addictive. Meanwhile, it, unfortunately, contains calories. The more we eat sugary foods, the more calories we ingest, and the more we are likely to gain weight. It's only natural that if we want to lose weight, we should find a sugar replacement that is as delicious as sugar but doesn't have the calories.
Over the past decade, we have heavily leaned into the pursuit of consequence-free sweet foods, discovering an array of sweeteners that help us minimize our calorie intake while maximizing sweetness. As detailed in an article published by Precision Nutrition titled All About Natural Sweeteners, it was no surprise that 20% of modern diets now consist of sweeteners. If you're into math – that's 1/5 of our diet. That should be enough to make us reconsider our food choices.
Admittedly, there has been a seismic shift in our approach to sweeteners. Natural sugars, like honey, maple syrup, agave, and jaggery, are starting to shine, taking the place of processed, refined table sugar and the hotly debated high-fructose corn syrup.
However, let's proceed in this conversation with caution. There is an assumption that "natural" automatically means "healthier." Yes, these forms of natural sugars contain other antioxidants and nutrients that may benefit our bodies. Having said that, it's not uncommon for someone who lauds healthy sugars to overeat them in desserts, yoghurts, health bars, juices, shakes, and healthy versions of ice creams and other snacks.
In short, the benefits of the minute amount of nutrients found in natural sugars soon outweigh the risk of overconsumption and the consequence of obesity and other lifestyle diseases. We can easily gobble up an entire daily serving of "healthy" sugar in our everyday lives before we leave the breakfast table.
On the same note, sweeteners concocted in laboratories aren't as harmful as once believed. As sweeteners emerged on the scene, there was fear in the food industry about cancers and Alzheimers – and rightfully so. We should always be conscious about what we put in our bodies. However, there have been copious amounts of inconclusive or insignificant results, and the FDA has since approved up to eight sweeteners for food additives.
So how do artificial sweeteners differ from sugar? It's in their chemical makeup. Most sweeteners used in "diet" products are "high-intensity" sweeteners. The sweetness is so pronounced that the tiniest dosage can be used without adding calories. For example, popular sweeteners such as Stevia are 250-300 sweeter than table sugar, Saccharine is 200-700 times more, Aspartame is 200 times more, and Sucralose is 600 times sweeter.
When discussing health properties comparing the two, moderation is the key for both. An article titled Health Implications of Fructose Consumption tells us that our daily recommended intake should be under 50g of fructose (a form of sugar), as diets containing high fructose are associated with metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. Fructose is not exclusive to only artificial sweeteners; it's found in high quantities in natural ones like agave. To put this in context, let us compare a 32 oz can of soda flavoured with agave versus one sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The one flavoured with agave contains 56 gm of fructose, while the one with HFCS contains around 50 gm. It is the dose that makes the poison, not the substance itself. Therefore, it doesn't matter whether you're consuming; you must stay mindful of your intake.
Also read: Hopped onto the gluten-free wagon yet?
However, are foods sweetened with high-intensity sweeteners that bad? Not exactly. In fact, it may be a good solution if you're trying to lose weight and not make drastic dietary and lifestyle changes that overly challenge you.
Let's look specifically at "diet" sodas, which are one of the popular sources of sweetener ingredients. If you're looking to kick a sweet craving and a can of Coke Zero is what soothes you, it may be the solution. Humans love the slight burning sensation of carbonation on our tongues, so sipping on a can of soda may be a mild form of painful pleasure, much like the powerful astringent flavour of whiskey or wine. This may be a great way to kick a craving if you can stop at one.
Likewise, diet soda may work if you want to reduce your alcohol intake, and drinking it makes you feel part of the party. And finally, if you're an avid full-sugar soda person, swapping to the diet variety is a simple way to reduce the calories without overwhelming you with a significant dietary change.
However, there are sometimes when diet sodas don't work. Sweet foods still beget sweet cravings, and having a can of diet soda, whether it's sweetened with natural or artificial sweeteners, may increase your desire for sweet foods. Why drive yourself crazy wanting to eat more food when your goal is to consume fewer calories to lose weight? Find another solution that works for you.
And finally, diet sodas can still contain caffeine, disrupting sleep patterns. People tend to dismiss the caffeine content of soda because there is less caffeine per serving than your regular cup of coffee – leading to overindulgence closer to bedtime. A study by Mayo Clinic College of Medicine found that after eight days of sleep deprivation (by reducing their overall night sleep by 2.5 hours), the participants burned 559 fewer calories per day –a substantial down-regulation that can impact their weight loss attempts.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach