Cura Personalis: The ‘Sweet and Low’ down

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My name is Karen, and I am a recovering gum addict.

Karen Konkoly

Karen Konkoly

Since middle school I’d chew a pack a day, or more. By my senior year of high school, gum was making my jaw click, my gums bleed and causing fights with my boyfriend and parents. My first pledge to quit was written out on a piece of notebook paper, which, to this day, remains taped to my refrigerator.

Since then, my attempts at gum abstinence have been iffy at best. By the end of last semester, I was tearing through whole packs of gum in a single class period. I calculated that I’d spent at least $3,000 on gum. Friends would remark that my excessive consumption of artificial sugar — in gum, along with Splenda, Diet Snapple, Crystal Light and more — was an anomaly in my otherwise health-conscious diet. I used to rationalize artificial sweeteners gave me the sweet-tooth fix that enabled me to eat healthy foods the rest of the time, but I’ve come to realize their deleterious effects on my relationship with food were further reaching than I suspected.

For me, the biggest reason to keep chewing gum and eating artificial sugars was because I rarely, if ever, felt full when I was finished eating real food. Even after I’d eaten plenty, I was never satisfied. To fill the void, I used gum. Little did I know, there was a growing body of research that suggested gum, and other artificial sweeteners, was causing my insatiable appetite in the first place.

A well-controlled study in the British Journal of Nutrition found artificial sugar may prevent the body from producing GLP-1, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels and feelings of satiety. The study found while caloric sweeteners increased satiety — but not significantly — artificial sweeteners had a minimal effect on satiety.

Even though artificial sweeteners don’t satisfy your appetite, they still don’t have any calories. So what’s the problem?

A lot of things.

Though there have been various studies suggesting artificial sweeteners can lead to cancer, the findings are mixed. Plus, each time a new artificial sweetener comes on the market, it is touted as a safe, trendy alternative until somebody finds out this, too, gives you cancer. Most recently, this has been the case for Splenda.

However, even if you don’t buy into the mixed findings that artificial sweeteners directly cause cancer and obesity, artificial sweeteners still have several other detrimental effects.

In one study, researchers found that firmicutes, a type of gut bacteria that thrives when animals eat artificial sweeteners, is also found abundantly in the guts of genetically obese mice. Further, when firmicutes from obese mice is transplanted into the guts of normal-weight mice, they gain weight. The article goes on to suggest that firmicutes helps animals extract more energy from their food, and also manipulates the genes to trigger fat storage instead of breakdown for energy.

Another problem is, because most artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, people who regularly consume them have lower activation in the brain’s pleasure centers when they taste sweet foods. Some suggest this dampened response causes mice and rats to over-indulge in sweet-tasting foods later because their brain no longer associates sweetness with calories. For humans, the findings have been mixed as to whether or not consuming artificial sugar leads directly to overeating sugar later.

For me, at least, consuming artificial sugar leads to directly to consuming more artificial sugar later — which leads to spending $3,000 on gum. In one study mentioned in Prevention magazine, rats who were exposed to cocaine and then given the choice between intravenous cocaine and oral saccharin — name brand “Equal” — most chose the saccharin.

Although all the dangerous effects of consuming real added sugars mean the findings are mixed as to whether its better to eat artificial sugar or real sugar, the one way everyone can win is by conditioning themselves to enjoy food without added sweeteners at all. Don’t justify eating real sugar by saying it’s better than Splenda, but at the same time, don’t wrap yourself up in a cycle where you add Splenda to everything but aren’t ever satisfied — i.e. me.

It took me years to admit I had an unhealthy relationship with artificial sugar, so if you’re not ready to quit then I suggest just one thing: If you’re going to consume artificial sugar, do so mindfully. It can be easy to thoughtlessly down a Diet Coke — or for me, pack of gum — because you won’t feel full afterwards. However, by eating mindfully and paying full attention to everything you consume — food and artificial sweeteners alike — you will become more aware of how they affect your mind and body.

Plus, if you pay close attention to every piece of gum, you won’t have time to chew 30 pieces a day.

Karen Konkoly, ’17, is a columnist for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]

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