Artificial sweeteners – you probably know them as the little pick packet (saccharine), the little blue packet (aspartame), and the little yellow packet (sucralose ) – are used in a wide variety of foods and beverages.
Much of the research to date has found artificial sweeteners may actually increase appetite, cause weight gain, and affect the body’s ability to use glucose (sugar). Newer research also suggests that artificial sweeteners may also affect mood and cognition.
In a 2017 observational study of 1484 people over 60 years of age, increased intake of artificially sweetened beverages increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and all-cause dementia. A 2014 study of 28 participants showed that higher intakes of aspartame (little blue packet) increased feelings of irritability, depression, and resulted in worse performance on spatial orientation cognitive tests.
While it is not yet clear why artificial sweeteners may affect brain function, animal models suggests that it may be due to altered metabolism, specifically glucose (sugar) metabolism.
As you may be aware, alterations in how the the brain uses glucose and insulin are closely related to risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Thus, consuming a diet that is low in sugars, processed carbohydrates (such as breads, pasta, cereals, pastries, etc.), and sweetened beverages is an important step to reduce your risk for cognitive decline. We can now add avoiding artificial sweeteners to that list of food additives to limit or avoid.
So how do you limit your use of regular sugar as well as artificial sweeteners?
Start by retraining your tongue. If you are used to bathing your taste buds in sweetened beverages (soda, sweetened teas or coffee drinks) or foods (candy, pastries, desserts), your taste buds are used to a high level of sweetness. As you take these foods out of your regular routine, your taste buds will readjust their sweetness “threshold” and start to notice that naturally sweet foods, such as fruit, are sweet enough. And if you were to go back and have a soda or ice cream after not having any for several weeks, you will likely find them too sweet to enjoy.
If you do find a need for sweetness in your foods, look to small amounts of good-quality natural sweeteners such as maple syrup or honey. These sweeteners are sweeter and more flavorful than typical sugar sources so a little bit goes a long way.
For more information or to learn more about AFFIRMATIVhealth’s RE:mind Program, a science-based program to improve cognitive health, please visit www.affirmativhealth.com.