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Can Sweeteners Be Part Of A Healthy Diet?

October 21, 2014

Sugars; clockwise from top left: White refined, unrefined, brown, unprocessed cane

Anyone who’s ever thought about what constitutes a healthy diet probably assumes it doesn’t include sugar. What about natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup, honey, and agave? Or stevia?  Is there a healthy way to satisfy your sweet tooth? While the type of sweetener you choose to eat is important, even more crucial is the amount you eat. Here’s why too much sugar of any type in your diet can be harmful to your health.

One argument against sweeteners is simply that our bodies did not evolve to handle large amounts of concentrated sugars. Traditionally, the only sweet food we ate was fruit. The sugars in fruit are conveniently packaged with fiber, which slows the absorption of the sugar so that it doesn’t overwhelm our systems. Foods with added sugar (and refined carbohydrates that readily turn into sugar in our bodies) are so abundant these days — and, let’s face it, they taste really good — that most of us eat too much. But our bodies haven’t caught up to this new way of eating. For some, the extra load on the pancreas, the organ that controls blood sugar and fat storage, is enough to cause it to literally wear out, leading to insulin resistance and diabetes. In addition to having negative effects on your blood sugar, eating excess sugar can depress your immune system and promote chronic inflammation.

We also now know that carbohydrate intake from added sugars and refined carbohydrates is a more important contributor to heart disease than fat and cholesterol. Add that to the brain fog and energy highs and lows that can result from eating sugary foods, and we have good reason to be wary of added sweeteners.

What about artificial sweeteners? After all, they have zero calories and don’t raise your blood sugar. Well, there’s reason to be wary of these as well. Firstly, they’re artificial. If you’re following a whole-foods diet, these chemicals have no place. Secondly, new research is uncovering the darker side of artificial sweeteners. A recent study demonstrated that artificial sweeteners can negatively affect gut bacteria and cause glucose intolerance, the condition that precedes diabetes.

So what’s the bottom line? Does all this doom and gloom about sweeteners mean we have to give up our favorite desserts and snacks? No, I don’t think so. Sweets can still be a part of a healthy diet… in moderation, of course.

But moderation can be difficult when it comes to sweets. If you’re someone who finds it hard to get through a day without a sugary coffee drink, an afternoon candy bar, or dessert after dinner (or all three!), you might want to experiment with cutting back. I’ll talk about some ways to approach that challenge in a future blog post.

Sometimes awareness is enough to bring about a change for the better. Start by simply paying attention to the sources of added sugars in your daily diet. Refined white sugar or artificial sweeteners can be replaced with maple syrup, honey (especially from a local source), stevia, and agave. Zing Bars are sweetened with a small amount of agave – here is more about that.

We want to know – how do you make sweeteners a part of your healthy diet?


Carol White, MS, RD, CD, has her Master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University and a Bachelor’s degree in writing. Blogging about nutrition allows her to blend her dual passions for writing and nutrition education. She currently  works as a clinical dietitian in several skilled nursing facilities in the Seattle area.

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