So many of the women I work with come to me for help conquering sugar cravings.
They’re desperately trying to lose weight or relieve painful symptoms that they’ve come to realize stem from the abundance of sugar in their diets. These women are quickly beginning to realize that sugar substitutes may not be the easy answer they once seemed.
They’ve heard the headlines and seen the label warnings that sometimes come with artificial sweetener. They know that getting the sweetness they crave through man-made substances may not be the right solution. But they aren’t sure what they can do to satisfy their sweet tooth without causing symptoms they just can’t bear.
In this article, I’ll examine the options beyond Splenda. Then, I’ll offer some natural alternatives and eight great tips for conquering sugar cravings once and for all!
Aspartame and Saccharin: are they safer than Splenda?
Aside from Splenda, the most popular artificial sweeteners are aspartame (and its cousin, neotame) and saccharin. Foods with these additives are marketed to women as low-fat, low-sugar, and low-calorie.
Diet programs like Weight Watchers sell low-calorie foods that trade real nutrients for artificial ingredients, including sugar substitutes. I think it’s great to try and lose unwanted weight, but I question whether these packaged items should be marketed as healthy choices.
Good nutrition needs to take more into account than calories and fat content — especially when it comes to how many artificial sweeteners we’re eating and what we’re mixing them with.
Dangers in Aspartame
Aspartame, the main ingredient in Equal and NutraSweet, is responsible for the most serious cases of poisoning, because the body actually digests it. Aspartame should be avoided by most women, but particularly in those with neuropsychiatric concerns.
Recent studies in Europe show that aspartame use can result in an accumulation of formaldehyde in the brain, which can damage your central nervous system and immune system and cause genetic trauma. The FDA admits this is true, but claims the amount is low enough in most products that it shouldn’t raise concern. I think any amount of formaldehyde in your brain is too much.
Aspartame has had the most complaints of any food additive available to the public. It’s been linked with MS, lupus, fibromyalgia and other central nervous disorders. Possible side effects of aspartame include headaches, migraines, panic attacks, dizziness, irritability, nausea, intestinal discomfort, skin rash, and nervousness. Some researchers have linked aspartame with depression and manic episodes. It may also contribute to male infertility.
Saccharin, the first widely available chemical sweetener, is hardly mentioned any more. Better-tasting NutraSweet took its place in almost every diet soda, but saccharin is still an ingredient in some prepared foods, gum, and over-the-counter medicines.
Remember those carcinogen warnings on the side of products that contained saccharin? They no longer appear because industry testing showed that saccharin only caused bladder cancer in rats. Most researchers agree that in sufficient doses, saccharin is carcinogenic in humans. The question is, how do you know how much artificial sweeteners your individual body can tolerate?
That being said, some practitioners think saccharin in moderation is the best choice if you must have an artificially sweetened beverage or food product. It’s been around a relatively long time and seems to cause fewer problems than aspartame. I don’t argue with this recommendation, but I encourage you to find out as much as you can about any chemical before you ingest it.
Artificial sweeteners are body toxins. They are never a good idea for pregnant women, children or teenagers — despite the reduced sugar content — because of possible irreversible cell damage. If you decide it’s worth the risks, then go ahead, but pay attention to your body and your cravings. Once you start tracking your response to artificial sweeteners, it may surprise you.
Short-circuiting the insulin spike
Basically, artificial sweeteners confuse your brain. The enzymes in your mouth begin a cascade that primes your cell receptors for an insulin surge, and when it doesn’t arrive your brain feels cheated. That’s why most diet sodas are loaded with caffeine — so you’ll still feel a jolt.
But even if your brain is distracted momentarily, soon enough it wants the energy boost you promised it — and you find yourself craving carbohydrates. In one study, people who used artificial sweeteners ate up to three times the amount of calories as the control group. But again, this is individual. It all comes down to the brain’s perception of calories, which can get thrown off whenever artificial ingredients are substituted for whole food.
In my practice I’ve seen that many patients are better able to break their addiction to sugar and maintain weight loss with the help of sugar substitutes, probably because insulin is not involved. Also, the substitutes are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, so you may use less of them. In certain cases, I think moderate use of artificial sweeteners is okay — as long as it doesn’t make you feel terrible!
But you should know that sugar substitutes don’t have to be artificial. There is another way!
Stevia and Sorbitol — natural alternatives to artificial sweeteners
We’ve learned a lot about controlling insulin naturally, both from other countries and from diabetics. For many years, diabetics have used products sweetened with polyalcohol sugars like sorbitol, xylitol, maltitol, and mannitol. These are natural (xylitol, for instance, can be derived from birch tree pulp) sweeteners that do not trigger an insulin reaction. They have half the calories of sugar and are not digested by the small intestine.
While most polyalcohol sugars have no side effects, sorbitol is a natural laxative and can cause diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, bloating and flatulence (just read the reviews for sugar-free gummy bears on Amazon to see what I mean).
For this reason, I recommend my patients use the herb stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) over sorbitol as a natural sweetener. Known in South America as the “sweet herb,” stevia has been used for over 400 years without ill effect. Stevia has been enormously popular in Japan, where it has been in use for more than 20 years, now rivaling Equal and Sweet’N Low. It’s 200–300 times sweeter than sugar, so just a small portion of stevia will sweeten even a strong cup of tea.
We’ve known about stevia in the US since 1918, but pressure from the sugar import trade blocked its use as a commodity. Today stevia is slowly gaining steam as a sugar substitute, despite similar hurdles. The FDA has approved its use as a food supplement, but not as a food additive due to a lack of studies. Stevia can be used for anything you might use sugar in, including baking.
It is naturally low in carbohydrates. You can buy stevia at most health food stores and online. Based on reports from other countries, stevia appears to cause few to no side effects. For women who want to move through their cravings for sugar without artificial chemicals, stevia is a great option.
Natural balance for your body
More importantly, you can do a lot to support your body in other ways to reduce your dependency on sugar and sugar substitutes — something I encourage every woman to do. Once your body returns to its natural state of balance, you may find that you can toss out those artificial sweeteners and put sugar in its proper place: where you have control over it and not vice versa.
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals, not food! They have no calories because they don’t nourish your body in any way — they’re toxins your body has to clear, or, depending on how well you detoxify, store. But if you can’t live without your diet drink, don’t beat yourself up about it. Accept it, give your body extra support elsewhere, and slowly work on giving it up.
Living the sweet life with better nutrition
In my practice, I encourage my patients to build their snacks and meals from whole food, which means food that has not been processed and manipulated. Your food should resemble its source as closely as possible (e.g., fresh fish, not fish sticks).
Even if you don’t have a reaction or sensitivity to sugar, continue to use refined sugar rarely, if ever. Instead, sweeten sparingly with the more nutritionally complex natural sugars such as honey, rice syrup, molasses, and maple syrup.
If you already suffer from weight gain, diabetes, inflammation, chronic pain, migraines, headaches, or depression, you may have sugar intolerance. Check with your healthcare practitioner and try eliminating sugar entirely from your diet for a couple of weeks, then reintroducing it for a day to see how you feel. Many of my patients are amazed at how much better they feel after breaking the sugar habit.
10 Healthy Habits to help you conquer sugar cravings
1. Take a daily multivitamin to support your body’s nutritional needs.
Check out my high-quality Multi Essentials to give your body the boost it needs.
2. Eat protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates for breakfast.
Simple carbs and sugar fire up your insulin receptors and spark those sugar cravings. Starting your day with a sugary or high-carb breakfast dooms you to a day of up-and-down blood sugar levels — which will drive you to eat too much of the wrong things all day long.
3. Shop the perimeter of your grocery store.
Avoid the processed foods in the center aisles. Read all labels and be wary of food that contains aspartame, neotame, saccharin, acesulfame K, or sucralose. No studies have been done on the safety of mixing artificial sweeteners, and who wants to become a living, breathing test subject? If you consume them, do so prudently.
4. Minimize or avoid products that have sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or corn syrup near the top of their ingredient list.
Don’t be easily fooled by unfamiliar ingredients. Sugar can also be disguised as evaporated cane juice, cane sugar, beet sugar, glucose, sucrose, maltose, maltodextrin, dextrose, sorbitol, fructose, corn sugar, fruit juice concentrate, barley malt, caramel, and carob syrup.
5. Keep a bowl of fresh ripe fruit nearby to snack on.
Fruit will relieve your sugar cravings and it’s a much better choice than refined sugar or substitutes. Think primitive and eat fruit that is in season. The fresher the fruit, the more succulent and satisfying it will be. You may find you don’t need anything sweeter!
6. If you are craving something sweet, don’t feel guilty.
We’re often made to feel that avoiding sugar is only a matter of willpower, but it’s more complicated than that. Most of the time, uncontrollable or patterned cravings stem from a malfunctioning metabolism or low serotonin. Work on healthy nutrition and you’ll find your cravings will disappear.
7. Indulge yourself sometimes.
Remember, we have sweet taste buds for a reason. Try a piece of fruit first — you may find your craving diminishes. If you still want a piece of chocolate or pie, go ahead! But savor it slowly like a rare treat you may not have again for a while. Once your brain is allowed to fully register the experience, you may find you’re sated after a few bites. And, to help balance out the accompanying insulin surge, eat a piece of protein with it. Just make it a treat, not a habit.
8. Remember that wine and alcohol are sugar.
When it comes to sugar, having a glass or two of wine every day is just like eating a daily dessert.
9. Take a short walk after eating and breathe in deeply.
After getting your body moving, and your oxygen circulating, it’s likely you won’t want dessert after all! And if you do, you’ll appreciate it more.
10. Focus more on what you’d like to cook and eat than what you shouldn’t.
If you listen to your body, it may surprise you with a craving for eggs, not a diet soda.
Finding comfort in the right places
It may also be useful for you to examine the role that sweet food plays in your life. This often ties into deep associations and emotions buried in childhood. Perhaps you always crave sugar in the mornings because you associate family, home, and security with the pancake breakfasts your mother used to make.
But just as a pancake breakfast won’t satisfy your emotional longings, fake sugar won’t feed your body’s needs — nor will real sugar, for that matter. There simply are no shortcuts in that department.
Facing what is really going on in our emotions, our bodies, and our lives can be challenging, and it’s tempting to take the easy way out, buffeted by sugary treats and comfort food. In my experience, that path only leads back to the same place — more pain, and eventually, sickness.
I encourage you to nourish yourself from the inside out – with healthy food, self-care, and healthy relationships. In life there is bound to be some bitterness – the secret is to restore enough balance to delight in the sweet.
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD