To be fair, most of the health messages coming from the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association are spot on.
Yet, nobody is perfect.
The statement came from a “writing committee” of the AHA and ADA—two of the world’s leading health organizations. The writers hailed from places like Harvard, Stanford, Purdue and Northwestern. These are societies of experts charged with caring for two diseases—diabetes and heart disease–that mostly stem from humans making chronically bad choices about how they live in this world. It’s really that simple. Type II diabetes and typical heart disease (from hardening of the arteries) occur because people eat too much, move too little and do not get enough sleep.
I know that’s not news. Here’s what is—and what’s got me riled up.
After thousands of words and an exhaustive review of the less-than-clear science on artificial sweeteners, here’s what the position statement concluded:
The evidence reviewed suggests that when used judiciously, NNS (artificial sweeteners) could facilitate reductions in added sugars intake, thereby resulting in decreased total energy and weight loss/weight control, and promoting beneficial effects on related metabolic parameters. However, these potential benefits will not be fully realized if there is a compensatory increase in energy intake from other sources.
The press release begins…
Substituting non-nutritive sweeteners for added sugars in beverages and other foods has the potential to help people reach and maintain a healthy body weight and help people with diabetes with glucose control….
I understand their position. I respectfully disagree with it.
The premise holds that excessive sugar intake is bad for us. There is no debate here. I’d even add emphasis to the sugar-is-toxic idea. I truly believe that the number one nutritional problem in Western society is the excessive intake of insulin-spiking simple carbohydrates. One could write thousands of words describing the bad things that happen to the body when exposed to excess sugar. I’ll spare you that. Let’s get back to the AHA/ADA endorsement.
Since ingesting too much sugar is a problem, it stands to reason that zero-calorie artificial sweeteners would be beneficial. You get sweetness and pleasure, but avoid any adverse consequences. It’s like a free lunch. Not surprisingly, people have vigorously embraced these “diet” or “zero-calorie” products.
After reading the extensively researched position paper, it’s clear that the science on artificial sweeteners is weak. Convincing studies, or even strong trends, that either demonstrate clear benefit or overt harm of artificial sweeteners do not exist. Like so many nutritional studies in humans, confounding factors muddy the conclusions. In other words, it’s impossible to sort out the specific effects of artificial sweeteners.
But you already know the real problem with artificial sweeteners, don’t you?
A free lunch?
Free lunches fall in the same category as:
If it’s too good to be true…
Of course the smart use of artificial sweeteners might help selected people control calorie intake. But that’s not the spin of the press release or the headlines. The take-home message to the American patient will be that artificial sweeteners are good.
That’s not the message I want to hear from leading medical societies.
We are losing the battle of excess. Our health leaders shouldn’t settle; they should stay on message, even if it’s not well received or painfully basic. Even a cautious, call it small, endorsement from a leading health society will have a big effect on public perception.
In theHeart.org account, Harvard public health expert, Dr Walter Willett likened artificial sweeteners to the nicotine patch, basically saying that they aren’t that great, but they are better than the alternative–sugar. That’s awful. I’ve never once in my career written a prescription for a nicotine patch. I try to avoid substituting lousy treatments when simple avoidance is what’s needed. I don’t recommend substituting diet drinks for sugary drinks; I recommend not drinking sugary drinks.
Leaving out the cynical thoughts that such endorsements might be affected by financial relationships, ie…big red hearts on Diet Coke cans, let’s just say:
Doctors need to keep touting the basics. We must not be side tracked by the mirage of diet pills, calorie-free food or polypills. Of all people, we should know the dangers of free-lunch thinking.
Good sleep, better food and keep moving. I recommend this every day. So should our leading health societies.