James McQuillan | March 30, 2018

Picture this: you’ve just ordered a coffee from your local coffee shop and you’re approaching the milk and sugar station. You see all of the various items you can add to make your cup o’ Joe that much more delicious. Do you go with the yellow or pink packet of artificial sweetener, knowing it will add zero calories but will also add chemicals? Or the packet of “sugar in the raw” because it comes from nature? Or do you just leave with black coffee, overwhelmed due to the number of possibilities?!

It's a big debate, and there’s a whole lot of content out there about sugar. Turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, scan your social media feed and you’ll likely see something or someone talking about sugar. Unfortunately, all of this just muddies the water for people wanting to make the best choice for their health and fitness. “Should I use artificial sweeteners?” is a question fitness professionals get asked quite regularly, right up there next to “How many times should I work out per week?” and “What do you think of protein powder?”

The most basic tenet of weight loss, as any fitness professional will tell you, is the law of thermodynamics: calories in versus calories out. We must create a calorie deficit in order to lose weight (it’s not that simple, but we’ll keep it there for the sake of this post). Due to this fundamental truth, everyone seems to be scrambling to reduce any high-calorie foods in their diet, most of which include sugar. And this is one of the reasons why sweeteners and sugar-free substances and alternatives are so popular. From supermarkets to movie theater treat stands to your local coffee shops, both natural and artificial sweeteners are found everywhere, boasting a “better” alternative to table sugar. But the question is: is it really better?

Sugar-Free: Pros

Pure mathematics alone is enough to make many people to take up using sugar-free, calorie-free sweeteners. It's a simple equation: actively subtracting something that would add calories to one's diet. For example, the average teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories. Seems harmless in one cup of coffee, but at three cups a day for a whole year, that's 336 calories in a week, 17,520 calories in one year, just from your coffee cup. It adds up.

So, inevitably one's brain switches to "Great, I've made the healthier choice," when switching to a sugar-free alternative. But is this the case? We may have decreased the caloric intake, sure, but what have we taken in instead? 

Well...

Sugar-Free: Cons

As good as one’s intentions might be in switching from consuming regular sugar to consuming sugar-free products, this is not an equivalent exchange. First of all, there are so many different FDA-approved types of sweeteners. Aspartame is the most common ingredient you'll find in sugar-free processed foods, like diet soda. It's also sold in little packets under brand names like Equal, and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. 200 times?!?! Unlike other sweeteners, which generally just pass through your body, aspartame is metabolized into compounds found in natural food. It's considered safe in small amounts… we think.

According to studies by the Endocrine Society among others, moving from sugar to artificial sweeteners doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose fat mass. If anything, quite the opposite is true in most cases.

Most studies on the topic discover that longer-term consumption of sugar-free products can lead to weight gain over time. According to a study in 2014, people who switched to sugar-free from food and drink with sugar found themselves gaining weight. The study also found that obese or overweight people who consumed sugar-free drinks tended to eat more food. This brought their total daily caloric intake up to the level of overweight and obese people who consumed food and beverages sweetened by sugar. Although the diet drinks reduced the calories consumed from drinks, this was counterbalanced by people eating more food than people of a similar weight who drank sugar-sweetened drinks.

The researchers offer a number of interesting hypotheses about why this may be the case. One suggestion is that although these drinks are sugar-free, they still activate the brain's "sugar reward" pathways, so the person still has a "sweet tooth" that causes them to snack more. Another suggestion is that people may simply transfer the calorie intake they used to get from sugary drinks to eating more food.

We see people doing this all the time, right?! “Since I ate something with less calories for breakfast, now I can eat something with more calories for lunch to ‘make up for it.’” But, again, this doesn’t apply to sugar, mainly because sugar-free does not equal healthy. In another study by the Endocrine Society, researchers found that consuming low or zero-calorie sweeteners long-term could increase the likelihood of conditions such as metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, and prediabetes.

As a result, the chances of suffering from a metabolic condition is made three to five times more likely if you replace your sugar with artificial alternatives long-term.

Sugar: Pros

As humans, we must accept one conclusion about our nutrition and about sugar in general: we can never completely cut out sugar. In one form or another, we will always eat sugar. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s also great to remember that sugar’s primary purpose is to fuel our bodies! It's simply a case of knowing which sources of sugar are best to consume.

Carbohydrates, for example, is ultimately a broad term for sugars of varying complexities. These sugars range from the most complex (polysaccharides and fibers), including whole grains and sweet potatoes, to the most simple and refined (monosaccharides) like fruits and that white table sugar we mentioned. (Btw, see our relevant blog post on complex carbs here).

It’s important to note these differences because sugar that is found in nature, consumed in moderation, is not the devil. It’s an inevitable part of a balanced diet. Added, refined sugar, however, is not. More on that to come momentarily.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the growing number of “natural” sweeteners available on the market, which may offer good alternatives to table sugar and  the terrible fake sweeteners out there. Options include: coconut sugar, agave nectar, honey, maple syrup, stevia, and more. Some of these sugar substitutes have vitamins and minerals; others prevent the roller-coaster blood sugar response that's typical of sugar; and—of course—all of them come from nature. At least there’s a win in that regard!

Ultimately, the same advice as always rings true: eat more food found in nature, less food found in sealed plastic wrappers, and eat anything with sugar in moderation.

Sugars: Cons

As we already discussed, added sugar may be the single worst ingredient in the modern diet. It can have harmful effects on metabolism and contribute to all sorts of diseases.

Added sugars (like sucrose and high fructose corn syrup) contain a whole bunch of calories with zero essential nutrients. For this reason, they are often referred to as "empty" calories. There are no proteins, essential fats, vitamins or minerals in sugar... just pure energy. When 10-20 percent or more of someone’s caloric intake comes from sugar, this can become a major problem and contribute to nutrient deficiencies. Not to mention something we’ve all heard from our dentists: sugar is very bad for the teeth, because it provides easily digestible energy for the bad bacteria in the mouth.

In order to understand the cons of sugar, we must review what it’s made of. Before sugar enters the bloodstream from the digestive tract, it is broken down into two simple sugars: glucose and fructose.

  • Glucose is found in every living cell on the planet. If we don't get it from the diet, our bodies produce it.

  • Fructose is different. Our bodies do not produce it in any significant amount and there is no physiological need for it.

Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver in significant amounts. This is not a problem if we eat a little bit (such as from fruit) or we just finished an exercise session. In this case, the fructose will be turned into glycogen and stored in the liver until we need it. However, if the liver is full of glycogen (much more common), eating a lot of fructose overloads the liver, forcing it to turn the fructose into fat. When repeatedly eating large amounts of sugar, this process can lead to fatty liver and all sorts of serious problems.

Keep in mind that all of this does not apply to fruit. It is almost impossible to overeat fructose by eating fruit.There is also massive individual variability here. People who are healthy and active can tolerate more sugar than people who are inactive and eat a Western, high-carb, high-calorie diet.

Ultimately, sugar can be pretty scary. Over consumption of refined sugar can result in chronic problems such as heart disease, liver disease, obesity, diabetes, and more. Moderation and understanding are necessary when it comes to sugar. See if there are any places in your diet where you can cut some out. Switching out soda for water, or even seltzer water with a splash of juice (and then slowly increasing the seltzer to juice ratio over time!), is one great place to start.

Conclusion

The standard advice will always hold: moderation is key both with artificial sweeteners and natural sugars. For someone looking to lose weight, artificial sweeteners are probably your best bet in terms of the calories they boast, but do you want to put chemicals in your body? It’s crucial that we educate ourselves and know the risks of everything we put in our bodies.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to anything regarding nutrition, as every individual is different. Nutrition is a learning curve and a (frustratingly) complex science, but simply understanding the effects of both sweet options, sugar and sugar-free, and knowing what’s in your food is a great start.