Sugar really is comforting, but aspartame is not

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We’ve all heard of the concept of comfort food. When the stresses of life seem too great, we turn to foods packed with lots of fat and sugar to ease our discomfort. If you’ve ever wondered if this is purely psychological or if there actually is a biological component, an interesting new study published in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism answers this question, at least when it comes to sugar.

Their study demonstrated that sugar sweetened beverages actually suppresses the release of the stress hormone cortisol. What’s even more interesting is they found that non-caloric artificial sweeteners like aspartame do not suppress cortisol. There is a lot of confusion concerning non-caloric sweeteners and their overall effectiveness. Many studies show that they do help with weight loss while others do not. There have been several theories on the subject concerning how artificial sweeteners that provide no calories can still lead to weight gain.

One theory believes that non-caloric sweeteners trick the brain by providing sweet taste without supplying energy (calories). In time, the fear is that your body will stop sending the proper signals for satisfaction after eating sweets which will lead to overeating and weight gain.

Another study showed that non-caloric sweeteners can alter the composition of beneficial microbes in your digestive system which will make you glucose intolerant. Like insulin intolerance, your body then becomes less efficient at clearing sugar from your blood stream. Your blood sugar levels will rise higher when you do consume sugar and then take longer to fall. These are the same metabolic issues that lead to weight gain and diabetes.

This realization that aspartame does not suppress cortisol levels like sugar does can also explain how many non-caloric sweetened foods and beverages can still lead to weight gain. If you’ve fallen into the habit of using sugar to suppress your cortisol and ease your stress, then you may keep eating non-caloric sweetened foods for comfort when the initial ones don’t do the job. They may not contain sugar calories, but they still contain plenty of other calories from protein and fat.

Good for diets, bad for comfort

So it makes sense how non-caloric artificial sweeteners can help some people lose weight and still cause others to gain weight. If you’re actively dieting, it can be a helpful way to satisfy some cravings without derailing your results. However, trying to habitually use it for comfort may be as detrimental to your waistline as sugar. If the fake sugar doesn’t work for comfort, you may just keep trying to satisfy yourself with more food. As I mentioned in the immune boosting article, exercise not only suppresses cortisol, but it also causes your body to release less cortisol in the future in response to stress. If you’re a comfort eater, avoid relying on non-caloric sweetened foods and beverages to ease your stress because it won’t work and could lead to overeating. Instead, see if you can’t lessen your reliance on comfort food by reducing the amount of cortisol your body releases by exercising regularly.

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