Diabetes and Artificial Sweeteners: What You Need to Know

Putting down the diet soda is a good step towards diabetic foot health

If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, you probably know that your feet are very vulnerable to numbness, wounds that won’t heal and dangerous infections known as ulcers. In order to keep your feet safe, it is very important to maintain good control of your diabetes. Uncontrolled diabetes allows glucose to build up in your blood stream, causing the nerve damage and reduced blood flow that can lead to these types of painful and potentially limb-threatening complications.

Staying in Control of Diabetes
Losing weight is generally a good idea if you have diabetes, but you have to be smart about the ways in which you lose that weight. While we all know that cutting out sugary drinks like juice and soda is one way to lose a few pounds, a study out of Purdue University is teaching us that something many may find surprising: replacing sugary beverages with diet sodas won’t help us reach our goal weight.

Quite the opposite actually occurs, according to the study; Purdue researchers can now link diet sodas to a number of dangerous health problems, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In other words, if you think that opting for a Diet Coke will help you lose weight and get your diabetes under control, think again: diet drinks are just as bad for you as their full calorie, sugar-ridden counterparts.

How can this be true? Read on!

Why Diet Soda Messes with Your Weight

To reach these findings, lead researcher Susie Swithers reviewed several previous studies in an attempt to discover whether long term consumption of diet soft drinks increases the likelihood of overeating, weight gain and other health problems.

Swithers discovered that people who drink diet soda are more likely to gain weight than those who drink the regular kind. These findings were not limited to one kind of artificial sweetener (although we’ll review the rankings of sugar-free options in a bit); the study examined several different diet drinks sweetened with aspartame, sucralose and saccharin. The same findings were evident with each sweetener: across the board, diet drinks increased cravings which, in turn, increased the likelihood of weight gain.

In spite of this evidence, the American Diabetes Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics still support the use of low- and no-calorie sweeteners to help maintain a healthy weight, citing studies that show drinking diet beverages doesn’t lead to weight gain or increased desires to eat sweets.

Choosing the Right Artificial Sweetener

Of course, not all artificial sweeteners are created Equal (get it? If not, keep reading for clarification!) When you are living with diabetes, you have to be smart about your choice of sugar alternatives, as some may help you control your blood sugar levels, while others may leave you vulnerable to far more worrisome complications.

Good Choices

Splenda is the best artificial sweetener option for diabetics, especially those who have been diagnosed with Type 2 (when you have Type 2 diabetes, your body prevents the insulin it makes from working correctly. Your body may make some insulin, but not enough. In contrast, with Type 1 diabetes, your body makes little or no insulin due to an overactive immune system. So people with type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day.) Splenda is 600 times sweeter than regular sugar, but it doesn’t affect blood sugar and really isn’t absorbed as it passes through your body.

Stevia is also generally viewed as a safe option for diabetics. Many people prefer this ‘natural’ sweetener (it’s derived from a plant), but some users reported headaches and stomach problems with mass consumption.

Bad Choices

Saccharin (typically found in Sweet and Low or pink packets) is a double-edged sword for diabetics. Saccharin has been shown to trigger food cravings in your body, which can lead to weight gain and make it more difficult to manage your diabetes.

Aspartame (found in Equal or blue packets) is a low-calorie sweetener that has been linked to a lot of scary side effects like leukemia, lymphoma and breast cancer. While no evidence is conclusive, why take the risk when there are many better options available?

Choosing the Safest Beverage

As you can clearly see, when choosing artificially sweetened drinks, there are better and worse choices you can make. Still, while artificial sweeteners can help maintain your blood sugar, avoiding them whenever possible by choosing beverages with no sweeteners—like water, a free and fabulous choice—is the better way to go.

As Swithers maintains, evidence proves that artificial sweeteners somehow throw off the body's calorie intake meter. "We think there's a much more basic fundamental learning process that's getting interrupted (with diet drink consumption),” she said. "You get this kind of confusion and that can lead to overeating, and at least in the animal model, that can lead to an increase in blood sugar spikes.”

Blood sugar spikes, as diabetics well know, can allow your illness to spin out of control, putting you at risk for debilitating foot problems or even amputations. Before your uncontrolled diabetes permanently affects your feet, make an appointment to see Houston podiatrist Dr. Andrew Schneider at Tanglewood Foot Specialists. He can work with you to ensure your diabetes will not derail your long-term foot health. 

Dr. Andrew Schneider
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A podiatrist and foot surgeon in Houston, TX.