Yet another new study supports what I’ve seen in my private practice for years – artificial sweeteners actually increase cravings. Scientists say that faux sugars activate the brain’s pleasure center, without satisfying it, which triggers an increased desire for sweets. That’s probably why statistically, people who drink diet beverages aren’t slimmer–one report found that two-can-a-day diet drinkers had a 54.5 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese, compared to 32.8 percent for those who drank the same amount of regular soda.
While I’m certainly not recommending drinking regular soda, I do believe that kicking the diet habit is essential for sustainable weight control and optimal health. I’ve had numerous clients who worried they’d never be able to give up the artificial stuff, or that doing so would lead to weight gain, but the outcome is always the same–fewer cravings for sweets, a heightened ability to tune into hunger and fullness cues, and far more effortless weight loss. If you’re ready to give fake sugars the old heave-ho, put these five steps into action.
Go cold turkey (and be sure to uncover hidden sources!)
In addition to diet drinks and those little colored packets, artificial sweeteners may be lurking in foods you don’t suspect, including gum, yogurt, flavored water, protein shakes, and powders, even cereal. To scope them out, read every ingredient list carefully. Generic names include aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, or Ace K, and saccharin. While stevia is marketed as natural, I recommend avoiding this additive as well. In my experience, its intense sweetness (100 times sweeter than sugar) may also drive a desire for sweets, and groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) raise important concerns about its safety.
Start a cravings journal
In addition to tracking what and how much they eat, I ask my clients to record their hunger/fullness ratings before and after meals, as well as any observations related to cravings, whether physical or emotional. Their post-artificial sweetener observations can be pretty darn remarkable. I’ve had clients who were self-proclaimed artificial sweetener addicts suddenly lose their sweet tooths. One was shocked when she had no desire to sneak a spoonful of her son’s pudding. Another was struck by the realization that when she stopped doctoring up her a.m. coffee with fake sugar, she no longer felt like nibbling all morning on office treats.
Satisfy sweet cravings with fruit
Research indicates that fruit can indeed satisfy a sweet tooth, and it’s a far better option than a calorie-free sweetener for several reasons. First, the naturally occurring sugar in fresh fruit is bundled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and fluid, key nutrients that nourish your body and support your overall health. The sugar in fruit is also non-concentrated–one cup of grapes (about the size of a tennis ball) contains about 15 grams of sugar, a few grams less than the amount in just a tablespoon of honey.
Finally, studies show that regular fruit eaters weigh less, even more so than veggie eaters, probably because fruit tends to displace sweets (e.g. reaching for an apple instead of a cookie), whereas veggies tend to be add-ons. Fruit is fantastic by itself, but you can also get creative with it. Add a little mashed in-season fruit to your ice water, toss fruit on the grill or bake it in the oven, warm fruit on the stovetop, seasoned with spices like cinnamon, cloves, or ginger, or sauté your favorite fruits in a little extra virgin coconut oil. If there are varieties you haven’t yet tried, like dragon fruit or carambola (aka starfruit), give them a whirl. There’s a bounty of nature’s candy to discover.
Use “sweet” spices
While not technically sweet themselves, spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and nutmeg enhance natural sweetness, and can take the place of some or all of the sugar in various dishes. I relish sprinkling cinnamon and nutmeg, or a spice blend (pumpkin pie spice, apple pie spice) into my morning cup of coffee, and many of my clients find that adding these aromatic, satisfying seasonings to foods like hot or cold whole-grain cereal, natural nut butter, nonfat organic Greek yogurt, and baked sweet potato, allows them to forgo sweeteners all together. Bonus: they’re potent sources of antioxidants, which are cell bodyguards that protect against premature aging and disease; one teaspoon of cinnamon packs as much antioxidant power as a half cup of blueberries.
Enjoy real sugar sparingly
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the daily target for added sugar (e.g. the sugar you add to coffee or the sugar added by manufacturers to sweetened yogurt, baked goods, etc.) should be no more than 6 level teaspoons for women, and 9 for men–that’s for both food and beverages combined. If you’re eating clean, and avoiding processed foods that often contain hidden added sugar (such as salad dressing, canned soup, and tomato sauce), you can afford to build small, sweet splurges into your overall healthy diet. For example, a half cup of coconut milk ice cream contains about 10 grams of sugar, a two inch brownie about 12 grams, and two tasting squares of 75 percent dark chocolate about 4 grams, roughly a teaspoon worth (every 4 grams of added sugar equals a teaspoon).
In my experience, avoiding artificial sweeteners tends to curb sweet cravings overall, but when they do strike, indulging in a small amount of the real thing is the best way to satisfy your fix, and move on. My mantra: keep calm and eat real food.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.