Artificial Sweeteners: Not so sweet after all

The next time you are about to tear open that yellow, blue, or pink packet or reach for a diet beverage, you may want to think twice. Throughout the 1900’s, artificial sweeteners seemed to be the miracle food – all the delicious sweetness people enjoy, without any of the sugar or calories. But now this “miracle food” might not be such a miracle after all. Recent research has been showing that these artificial sweeteners may be doing more harm than good!

One study of over 400,000 people found that, even though artificial sweeteners don’t have any calories, they did not help people lose weight. In fact, they found consuming more artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

How could this be possible? Less calories should mean more weight loss, right? Well, just because the sweeteners aren’t providing any calories, doesn’t mean we aren’t getting more calories elsewhere. One Harvard doctor explained that artificial sweetener consumption could cause overstimulation and desensitization of our sugar receptors, which causes people to crave sweeter and sweeter foods. It can also end up making un-sweet foods (such as vegetables) unpalatable. These sugar cravings and vegetable aversions lead to people eating more sugary and high calorie foods, which cancel out any reduction in calories from using artificial sweeteners.

Also, remember the gut microbiome I talked about in my post about Probiotics? Well, researchers found artificial sweeteners can change your gut bacteria…and not in a good way! The sweeteners increase the number of Bacteroides, an “energy hoarding” bacteria species that make it nearly impossible to lose weight. Other changes in the microbiome, caused by artificial sweeteners, make it more difficult for your body to breakdown sugar – leading glucose intolerance and diabetes.

If you are looking for any bright sides, using artificial sweeteners in place of sugar can decrease likelihood of cavities and tooth decay, and while there is a lot of hoopla around artificial sweeteners causing cancer, there haven’t been any concrete studies to prove this. But! We only have short-term studies…we don’t really know what the effects of long-term use are.

In the end, regardless of weight gain, cravings, and diabetes, artificial sweeteners are, well, artificial. I don’t know about you but I would rather avoid putting artificial chemicals in my body and stick with the real stuff (in moderation, of course) if I had the choice.

Back to the Beverage Basics

This week, I am going back to some basics. While I love writing about all the cool, new nutrition research I learn at work and at school, I sometimes forget that many people have a tough time making basic healthy choices – especially when it comes to what they are drinking.

In many of my rotations at the hospital, people overlook drinks as a source of nutrition. I have seen overweight patients who just can’t figure out why they aren’t losing weight while eating eggs for breakfast, a salad, for lunch, and grilled chicken for dinner. Guess what? These people also drink crazy chocolate-y, sugary Starbucks drinks, several glasses of orange juice per day, and bottle on bottles of pop/soda. I even had one patient who admitted to drinking over 2 liters of orange juice every day – that’s about 946 calories and 176 grams of sugar!! I know this is an extreme scenario, but it is so easy to lose sight of how easily those fluid calories can add up.

When I am working with patients who want to lose weight, my number one piece of advice is to switch to zero calorie beverages with no artificial sweeteners. Yes, diet coke is zero calories, but all the artificial sweeteners wreak havoc on your digestion and bacteria in your gut (more on this in a future post, but for now, avoid all artificial sweeteners).

So what type of beverages do I recommend?

Number 1 is always water! Hot, cold, with lemon, berries, or cucumbers…water is always the best option. I love mine ice cold with a wedge of lemon, of course!

If you aren’t a fan of water, try the unsweetened, flavored, sparking waters that are all over Instagram and Facebook, like LaCroix or Bubly. While these are all better options than pop or sugary drinks, I still encourage people to stick with fluids that aren’t sparkling. There is some newer research showing that all the carbonation can acid reflux and increase ghrelin levels (the hormone that makes you feel hungry).

You can also pick up a cup of coffee. No, not a double chocolate Frappuccino with umpteen pumps of flavor or even a cup with some Splenda…just a plain old cup of black coffee (maybe with a splash of milk). Two to three, 8 ounce cups of coffee per day has been found to decrease risk of many diseases and help you live longer. Unsweetened tea, hot or cold, is also a good option.

Ultimately, my top beverage recommendations are:
1. Water
2. Unsweetened tea
3. Black coffee
4. Zero-calorie flavored water
*1-2 glasses of milk each day (any variety) is also okay. There is lots of new and controversial research about milk, but I’ll save that topic for another day.

Stay away from:
1. Pop/Soda (diet and regular)
2. Juice (even the 100% natural kind)
3. Fancy, sugary coffee drink
4. Gatorade and other sports drinks (unless you are a competitive athlete)

I challenge you to cut out all fluid calories – that could add up to a few hundred calories per day or ½ pound per week!

 

It Isn’t Only About Calories

What is the first thing you think about when it comes to health or weight loss? I am pretty sure I can guess that it is either diet or exercise. Did I guess correctly?

While diet and exercise both play very critical roles in health and body weight, there are many other things that people tend to forget about. Yep, it more than just calories in versus calories out than can impact how you feel or how much you weigh.

Here are some things to think about:

  1. Sleep –Not only can lack of sleep leave you with brain fog and feeling tired, it can also make it difficult to lose weight. Here’s why: lack of sleep increases a hormone in your body called ghrelin- your hunger hormones that tells your brain it is time to eat. Therefore, lack of sleep can cause you to eat more calories and have more cravings. Also, just like a lack of sleep makes your brain feel tired, it makes your metabolism feel tired too. That means your body doesn’t function as efficiently and you aren’t burning calories the same way as you would if you were well rested. Not to mention, it is difficult to get in a good workout in when you’re tired.
  2. Stress – When you are stressed, your body goes into the “fight or flight” response (also called “survival mode”). Just like the name, your body is doing everything it can to survive; your cortisol (stress hormone) levels increase and your body stops using your fat stores for energy. Why? Because your body thinks it needs to hold on to and use all of its energy to deal with the stress. Think about it…in evolutionary history, stress use to mean running from a dangerous situation, which does in fact require lots of energy, but now our stressors (like work and school) don’t require the same amount of energy as running from animals does. High stress and cortisol levels also cause you to crave energy dense/high calorie foods because, again, your body thinks it needs lots of energy to handle the stressor.
  3. Inflammation – Inflammation is a natural way the body protects and heals itself, but excess inflammation can cause weight gain and increased risk for chronic disease. Sugar, saturated fat, and trans fat are all pro-inflammatory foods (aka the bad guys), and more and more studies are showing dairy, artificial sweeteners, chemical food additives, and white flour are also culprits of inflammation. This means that even if you are only eating 800 calories per day worth of these foods, you are unlikely to lose weight (and you might also find yourself with headaches, fatigue, joint pain, and increased risk for heart disease and cancer).

While I am the nutrition guru and wish that all problems could be solved with nutrition, it is important to remember that there are other factors that control our weight and overall health. Try getting an extra hour or two of sleep, doing some relaxing activities (like yoga, reading, listening to some music, or taking a walk outdoors), and cutting out some of the pro-inflammatory foods and see how you feel. You might be surprised by the results after just one week!

Breakfast Cereal

Cereal: It is the “go-to” breakfast. Whether you pour a bowl at the table in the morning or dump some in a bag as you are running out the door, it is a pretty classic breakfast. In fact, grain-based breakfasts have been found to help people lose weight better than those who eat a traditional eggs, sausage, and toast breakfast.

Unfortunately, those grain-based cereals can be more like sugar-based cereal. Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, Coco Puffs, and Lucky Charms and even cereals like Kellogg’s Smart Start, Kashi, and Raisin Bran that are all marketed as “healthy” have heaps of sugar in them… sometimes more than a chocolate chip cookie!

I know that makes finding a healthy cereal very confusing, so here are my top 4 tips for choosing a healthy cereal to start your day with.

  1. It should have less than 10g of sugar per serving
  2. At least 3g of fiber per serving
  3. At least 5g of protein per serving
  4. The first ingredient should start with the word whole (ie. Whole wheat, whole grain, etc.)

If your cereal box doesn’t meet all 4 of these, put it back on the shelf and try another one of the other 500 cereals in the aisle. The one exception is protein. If your cereals falls a little short on protein, that is fine, but I would recommend having a side of eggs or low sugar Greek yogurt on the side.

I’ll also mention that portions are a big deal with cereal. The serving size is usually ¾ to 1 cup but we often dump 2-3x that in the bowl. Try measuring out your cereal for a few days. You might be shocked by how much you are actually eating.

Here is a list of some good cereal options:

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“Real Food” Bars

While I know most people do not enjoy grocery shopping, I am quite the opposite. Walking through aisles of the grocery store (especially at Whole Foods) for me is like a kid in candy store. All of options blow my mind. I could spend hours and hours reading every label and spend way too much money trying the new and crazy products on the market. One that I have recently become obsessed with is the snack bar whose only ingredients are fruit, nuts, and spices-nothing else (no chemicals, no preservatives, no added sugar, no nothing-only real food!).

I first tried the Raw Bite brand when I was studying in Copenhagen. Denmark has a 7/11 store on every corner filled with healthy snacks, pre-made salads, along with the usual candy bars and chips you find at 7/11 in the U.S, so finding the Raw Bite bars was a piece of cake. Pretty much all of the flavors are made of dates, raisins, nuts, and cashews, plus whatever gives it a distinct flavors (cocoa, peanuts, etc.). After coming back to U.S., I was on a mission to find a replacement for the Raw Bite bars I ate in Europe; the closest things: Lärabar.

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The main ingredient in Lärabars is dates and then each flavor has different fruits and spices to make them unique. Unfortunately they aren’t sold on every street corner 7/11 like in Europe, but I have been able to find them pretty easily at the grocery store (and not just at Whole Foods). My favorite flavors are Coconut Cream Pie, Apple Pie, Coconut Chocolate Chip and Peanut Butter Cookie- each with no more than six ingredients. Because they are made of mostly fruit, they are high in sugar (natural sugar, that is) and low in protein. This makes them a good snack, but they shouldn’t replace a meal like breakfast. I snacked on these all summer and are great during my back-to-back classes, but one of my favorite times to have them is a few hours after dinner when I need a little something sweet while working on my homework (the new Mini Lärabars are perfect for this!). The sweetness from the dates hits the spot when I don’t want something too dessert-like.

While Lärabars are my all-time favorite of the “real food” bar brands, more and more have been popping up recently. Kind makes Pressed by Kind bars that are just fruit (and depending on the flavor they also have vegetables and chia seeds). So far I have tried and enjoyed the Cherry Apple Chia and the Pineapple Banana Kale Spinach. There are also That’s It bars that are made of apples and one other fruit. They are sold at Starbucks so they are my go-to if I forget to bring a snack with me during the day. Because these two bars don’t have nuts in them like Lärabars, they are lower in fat and calories but aren’t as filling.

 

I’m always on the look-out for new products (especially snacks with no artificial ingredients) so if you have any recommendations, please send them my way!

 

New Nutrition Facts Label

You know that nutrition facts panel you stare at on the side of your cereal box during breakfast? After over 20 years of staring at that exact same label, you will soon have a new label to look at. Just over a month ago, the FDA approved the design and information to be included on the new nutrition facts panel you find on all packaged food. It has been over two years in the making, and now, after input from many focus groups, doctors, and scientists, the FDA has finally made it official. While you probably won’t see the new label on packages for a while (it is required until July 2018), here is what it looks like compared to the current label.

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The greatest change to the label, in my opinion, is the addition of the “added sugars” line. Foods like dried fruit, dairy products (yogurt and milk), and honey all have natural sugars but often times have sugar added to them as well. This new line on the label will help consumers differentiate between what is natural and what is added when it comes to sugar.

What do you think about the new label?

Read more about the changes to the food label here.

Vacation Eating and The Hunger Scale

Vacation usually means lots and lots of delicious treats! I love trying new foods so going to new restaurants and countries with new types of food is so much fun for me. Vacation also usually means a week or two of indulging and then its back to a relatively well balanced diet. My dilemma… I have quickly realized that this “vacation” is not just a week or two. I am abroad for over four months so having loads of sugary treats everyday is not the wisest decision. The past week has made me discover that just because I am in a foreign country does not means I can eat whatever I want, all of the time.

Over the weekend, some friends and I took a quick trip to Brussels, Belgium. I don’t know what you think about when I say Belgium, but the first things that came to my mind were chocolate, waffles, and French fries. With only 48 hours, we all took advantage of these amazing treats… so much so that we all felt pretty sick for the next few days. While a few days of salad, vegetable overload, and some trips to the gym got me feeling right back to normal, I have realized that this pattern of overeating and then “cleansing” does not make me feel my best.

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Belgian Waffles!

The biggest thing that I have forgotten about in all of this is the hunger scale. This guide here is a good way to know when and how much you (and I) should eat. If “1” is starving and “10” is miserably full, you should always be between 3 and 6/7. I know that recently I have been hitting 9/10 (and possible an 11 in Belgium!) way too often and it doesn’t feel good.

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It is probably going to be difficult to say no to the homemade cakes my host mom makes, along with the flakey chocolate-filled pastries on every street corner, but if I want to survive these four months without endless stomach aches, I have to remind myself that I am going to be here for quite some time, and I don’t have to stuff my face with everything that is in front of me. (But, of course, a treat or a bite here and there will never hurt!) I also have to remind myself how much better I will feel if I don’t go to bed feeling like a roly-poly every night.