Posted on July 25, 2013 by Jennifer Lilley
Confession time: for years I’ve wondered if I, you know, do it more than most people? I had a hunch my habit was a tad out of control: doing it (and enjoying it immensely) in the car, all over the house and even in front of Grandma. “Tsk, tsk,” she say as she’d turn her head away from her discovery. “We didn’t do that so often back in my day.”
Well, what can I say? It just felt wonderful. To even consider stopping was foolish.
Of course, I’m referring to my excessive use of artificial sweeteners. Let’s just say that at about three cups of coffee a day a day with two packs of artificial sweetener in each, well, that’s a lot of formaldehyde (yes, formaldehyde, but more on that later). Add to that the occasional diet soda and low-fat yogurt brimming with aspartame. Of course I can’t forget the times I’d sweeten up an already sweet cereal with a packet (or three) of the good stuff. Sigh.
That’s the bad news.
The good news?
For four months, I’ve been aspartame-free. One too many tsks tsks from folks, I suppose. In all seriousness, it came down to taking my health more seriously than I thought I was. Maybe it was caring Wendy, a medical transcriptionist, who said enough with her eyes to tell me that what I was consuming was bad. Very bad. Or my parents uttering stuff about its harmfulness to lab animals. Heck, even all the stuff I read myself.
Besides, how could I, after losing 70 pounds and keeping it off for six years, really say I’m adopting a healthier eating lifestyle when I was ingesting brain-tumor causing chemicals? (FYI, after aspartame is metabolized, the body produces Diketopiperazine, DKP, which has been said to possibly cause brain tumors). Yikes.
Still, I’d turn a blind eye, happier with the lure of indulging in sweet taste, zero calorie pleasure. If all the bad stories about artificial sweetener did start to get to me, I’d quickly dismiss it. Steamed broccoli and horseradish hummus, I’d think, can magically undo the bad. Silly of me, right? Funny how humans can still go on doing things we know full well are wrong for us (our bodies, our happiness, our morals) when we’re armed with just an ounce of “well, it’s not that bad” justification. In any event, the attractiveness of the great taste minus the calories was wonderful to fearful me who was determined not be gain it back stat.
Aspartame & Weight Gain: Not a Sweet Deal
Ironically, studies show turning to the calorie free stuff may play a role in weight gain. Gain! Yikes again. Apparently, there’s the argument that the extremely sweet taste signals the body’s cells to store fat and carbs, leading to intense food cravings. Even the American Cancer Society has noted that people consuming the stuff in the pink, yellow and blue packets gain more weight than people who don’t consume these products.
Oh, and let’s toss the aforementioned formaldehyde in the mix. Methanol (a wood alcohol) makes up about 10% of aspartame and when it breaks down in the body, it does so as the highly-poisonous formaldehyde. We get headaches and vertigo as a result. Get this: The EPA recommends a daily limit of 7.8 mg a day of methanol, equivalent to a 4-oz. sip of an aspartame-sweetened beverage. You know where this is going: Yikes, yikes and more yikes.
Sure, there’s tons of info out there about the controversies of aspartame. Some say one would have to consume insane amounts of it to even have the most minor of health issues. Others shake their heads at the bevy of complications that ANY amount can potentially cause. I’m sure there are studies and statistics that make sound arguments for both sides, but I’m going to err on the cautious side and take my coffee with my new favorites: sugar in the raw or Demerara sugar (pure goodness from Florida).
The Not So Sweet Feeling of Weaning Myself off Aspartame
So, what was it like to go from uber sweet “goodness” to “boring” ‘ole sugar in the raw or even plain white table sugar? I’m not going to lie. It was miserable. I felt cranky. I was annoyed. Every night, I had dreams about life-sized pink packets frolicking about in fields, blue birds and butterflies happily flittering about their presence. Kidding about the dreams. Not so much about feeling cranky.
When I stopped using all that aspartame and putting regular sugar in my coffee, I didn’t taste anything even remotely sweet. Might as well have had my coffee black. (Unfortunately, that’s how dependent by body became after using aspartame for so long). I even added more sugar just to see. Nope, still not sweet. Then I learned that it takes the body some time to fully adjust to the omission of one item and the addition of a new one in the diet. After about two months, I could taste some sweetness and now, as of this writing, I can actually taste real, honest to goodness sugar.
When I read more about aspartame, I kick myself for not stopping sooner. Maybe in addition to gaining weight back fears, my love of the pink packet was in part due to growing up with sugary Quik powders (I’d even dip the milk-covered spoon back in that can and lick away when my parents weren’t looking). Could have been all those after school treks to the candy store, where us fourth graders filled our bags with pixie-stix, Jolly Ranchers and Bazooka gum. Even then, I’d sip the sludge of crunchy sugar milk at the bottom of my cereal bowl.
Even if tests are inconclusive, even if the FDA isn’t ready to get fully on board with all this, I’m going to play it safe and not take any chances. Now, there’s not a packet of the A-word stuff in the house. Or in the bottom of my purse. Or my car console. I feel better for making this healthier choice, not only for my weight, but for my overall health.
And one more thing.
Grandma’s a lot happier for me these days too.
Jennifer Lea Reynolds
Jennifer Lea Reynolds is a weight loss success story who enjoys living a healthy lifestyle. A fan of the elliptical, roasted asparagus and remembering to put the lid on the blender, she’s appeared in many national and local print publications. She lives in New England where she writes professionally about health and wellness in online publications including Reader's Digest, Woman's Day, The Huffington Post, and more.