Why "Healthy Substitutions" Like Artificial Sweeteners May Not Be The Right Choice

People are always trying to control their eating by substituting products advertised as healthy, for food they believe is unhealthy. There is an entire industry built around the notion that many naturally occurring foods are unhealthy, as well as the notion that substituting bad foods with foods that have fewer “bad ingredients” automatically will make you healthier.

The first substitution mistake most of my obese patients make is to substitute artificial sweetener for table sugar. The main problem with artificial sweeteners is that they increase your addiction to sweets. Artificial sweeteners are much stronger stimulants of our brain’s pleasure center than sugar. As a result, artificial sweeteners may be more addictive than sugar, and in fact cause people to crave sweets even more. Not only is the addiction to sweets perpetuated, but because you become accustomed to constantly eating sweet foods, you begin to lose the ability to enjoy healthy foods that aren’t so sweet, such as fresh fruit. A surprising finding with artificial sweeteners has also been that some are associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome as well as an increase in coronary artery disease.

Another “healthy” substitution is breakfast bars in place of a traditional breakfast in the morning. Typical words on the label include “Heart Healthy”, “Low Fat”, “Natural” and “Organic” but don’t assume this equates to healthy. Many commercial breakfast bars are made almost entirely of carbohydrates including sugar, and have almost zero protein and zero healthy fats. One problem with these is that they simply aren’t satisfying. What you’re eating is often a high glycemic index snack that will leave you hungrier in an hour, and craving whatever you can grab at the office. If you break down the ingredients, this “healthy alternative” is essentially a cookie.

A product that varies widely is the “energy bar.” These things are often packed with hidden sugars, like agave syrup, rice syrup and high fructose corn syrup, as well as highly addictive sugar substitutes like sucralose, and the ubiquitous “natural flavors” that aren’t. One energy bar stocked in our physician’s lounge at the hospital has 120 calories, around 15% of your daily vitamin requirement and only 2 grams of protein! By calling these things energy bars, the implication is that they are a healthy. In fact, a piece of toast with peanut butter, or a strip of bacon, may be healthier. There are energy bars that contain little artificial sweetener, some healthy fats and have a high protein content, so stick with these.

Another misconception is that going vegetarian is an automatic road to health. Not true. Having operated on several morbidly obese vegans, I can assure you that vegetarian does not equal healthy nor thin. The problem with vegetarian, especially strict vegan, is that there is a much more limited choice of high-protein foods. High protein foods are extremely filling and satisfying, so they actually help you eat fewer calories. As a result, some vegetarians end up eating many more calories than they would otherwise eat if they were to include dairy or even fish into their diet. My advice to people that are struggling with weight, and are vegetarian, is to examine the amount of protein you are getting, and make sure that protein equals about 25-30% of your total calorie intake. This will help you feel full with less food. For those that are not vegetarian, and are thinking of switching to a vegan diet in order to lose weight, I suggest that you start by cutting out meat and poultry first, but keep the eggs and fish. Use these foods to make up the majority of your protein intake and, again, be sure that protein makes up 25-30% of your total calorie intake per day.

In the end, your healthiest choice always comes back to eating real, old-fashioned, plain old food. Artificial, and commercially made food substitutes are simply not the answer. The words of the premier fitness guru of the 20thcentury, Jack Leanne, were fairly accurate when he said “If man made it, don’t eat it.” Some of the simplest advice I can give to eating a healthy diet is first learn to cook, and second, instead of swapping out your routine foods with commercial substitutes, try changing to healthier fresh food choices first.