Saccharine Making Us Fat? Aw, Rats!

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Now, one could argue that such is the problem with sugar substitutes: they lure you into a false sense of caloric security. Wrong. The burden of weight management was never supposed to be dumped on the back of a sugar substitute. It takes effort, and we need to come to grips with that.

Sugar substitutes can be one step on the pathway to a healthier weight, but if it's the only step, you won't reach your goal. Of course, sugar substitutes are not a required tool of the job, just an option. Keep to drinking plain water or seltzer and you're fine, too.

Taste Bud Trappings

From a food science standpoint, drinks with sugar substitutes are little more than no-calorie flavored water, with or without fizz. However, some question whether constantly drinking sweet beverages will "dumb down" our taste buds, so that we'll lose the desire for plainer tasting beverages like water or low-fat milk.

As a nutritionist, I have an additional concern that people who overconsume sweet beverages (either the regular kind or the diet kind) will get so used to super-sweet tastes, that they'll dismiss the natural sweetness present in healthful foods like fresh fruit, so that eating an apple, for example, just tastes too plain. One patient of mine complained that fresh fruit seemed "totally boring." Another patient used to eat fruit only if it was sprinkled with sugar. Using a sugar substitute helped him cut some calories, but he's left with the same sweet tooth.

If you find yourself upping the number of sweet drinks you take each day, or increasing the number of packets of sweetener in your coffee, and you also notice you're eating more sweets — say a brownie with your afternoon coffee, instead of a banana, you may also notice it's become harder to lose weight or keep off extra weight. That's not because of the increased sweeteners, but because you're eating more calories overall

If this has happened to you, don't sweat it. Just consider it a wake-up call to get back to basics. Here are some tips to use the sweetener tools more wisely:

Keep the soda and soft drinks to one daily. Have water or seltzer other times.

Hold the sweetener packets to one or two in your drinks.

Add more water to powdered drink mixes than is called for. Gradually add more until you get used to a half-strength mix (This is more economical as well).

Sweets are occasional treats, so once or twice a week is occasional. Much more than that and it counts as a lifestyle, not a treat.

Try watery fruits for a sweet fix. Grapes and melons are even a great beverage substitute because it feels like you're both drinking and eating.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob is an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

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