Next time you think of sinking your teeth into that bar of sugar-free diet chocolate you might just want to skip it. It’s doing you more harm than good. And if a healthy beverage is what you want, diet colas should hardly be the poison of your choice. That low-fat table margarine? Don’t do it. Before you start thinking you’ve stumbled on to the pages of a neo-fascist manifesto, hold on.
Every time you opt for artificial diet substitutes (diet colas, artificial sweeteners, “low-cal” snacks, margarine, protein shakes, etc.) you’re only ingesting chemicals. Experts suggest that over a period of time many of these can damage your body in a variety of ways. Sugar substitutes, for instance, have been linked to cancer, and low-fat margarines to coronary heart disease. Calorie-free very often comes at a cost.
Moderation remains a better bet.
In the world of sugar-free, there lives a monster called aspartame. One of the three most-commonly used substitutes for sugar (saccharine and fructalose being the other two), aspartame is used in diet colas, sugar substitutes, diet candies and gum; and has been at the centre of a maelstrom in medical circles since the 1970s. It was cleared for human consumption by the US food and drug administration in 1981. Several studies over the years, however, have suggested aspartame is a carcinogen. One by Morando Soffritti, scientific director of the European Foundation for Oncology and Environmental Sciences in Bologna, Italy, concluded after seven years of research in 2005 that aspartame is carcinogenic in rats. Dr Soffritti’s study, however, has been questioned by the Calorie Control Council, a US-based trade group for makers of artificial sweeteners, even though the aspartame lobby itself is battling charges of inaccurate studies.
Source: Shikha Sharma
Although the politics of aspartame and the efficacy of Dr Soffritti’s study continue to be subjects of debate, there are some fundamental problems with aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, says Shikha Sharma, wellness consultant. “These are artificially created molecules that, over a period of time, can wreak havoc on your body. Cancer is basically a cell struggling with toxins. Too many toxins cause the control system of cells—that control the growth and proliferation of the cell—to break down,” she says.
What is more frightening is that these sweeteners are increasingly making their way into food items—without there being any information about them. “Sugar-free gum is very popular even among children. I found my mother having a mouth freshener containing aspartame. People end up consuming these without meaning to,” says Dr Sharma.
The dangers of trans fat, which include heart disease, have been recognized for some time. Several health boards and governments have attempted to monitor levels of use. In May, the Union government decided to fix norms for trans-fatty acid content in vanaspati and in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, limiting it to 10%. It proposes to lower the limit to 5% within three years. At the moment, there is no limit on the percentage of trans fat. The government also plans to introduce mandatory labelling of trans-fatty acids and saturated fat content for products.
Trans fat is also found in reduced-fat spreads such as margarines, certain types of low-fat mayonnaise and baked snacks (roasted snacks are safe) and has been linked to coronary heart disease by several studies, including one by the Harvard School of Public Health in 2007. Trans-fatty acids increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (considered “bad” cholesterol) and lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (considered “good” cholesterol), making it more harmful than even saturated fats. In addition, they can cause diabetes and lead to problems in the immune system, says Delhi-based nutritionist Ishi Khosla.
Protein shakes/powders, popular nowadays, are nothing but a “great marketing gimmick”, says Khosla. They don’t cause as much harm as sugar or fat substitutes—but they come with a high concentration of protein that doesn’t exist naturally in any form. They’re meant primarily for competitive sport. “Absorbing such a high concentration of protein at one go puts too much pressure on the stomach, liver and kidney. These can upset body metabolism and may lead to acidity, liver and digestion problems,” says Dr Sharma.
Instead of all this, nutritionists advise a switch to moderation. “The idea should be to retrain our taste buds: Instead of a sharp, sugary taste, try and appreciate the gentler taste of natural sweeteners like raisins and carrots,” says Dr Sharma.