Can Artificial Sweeteners Be Sabotaging Your Recovery?

Artificial sweeteners, oh how I loved you! Those pretty, petite, pastel packets of dopamine bliss.

For the amount I used, I wished the packets were doubled or tripled in size to avoid the chaos of frantically ripping each one apart to dump in my morning coffee, douse on my cereal, or sprinkle on my salad.

Yes, I said, salad.

That’s how much I craved their sultry sweetness. But, I’m done. That’s right. Finito. After realizing how artificial sweeteners were sabotaging my eating disorder (ED) recovery, they had to go. Here’s the gist:

Artificial sweetener prolonged my food obsessions

When I was in my ED, whether I was hungry or not, all I thought about was food. Food food, food.

What was I eating, how much, where, how I’d prepare it, how I’d give the illusion that I ate it, and where I could purge it. So, after recovering from three years of anorexia and 10 years of bulimia, I really wanted to be done with the food obsession.

In recovery, artificial sweeteners sabotaged my ability to stop thinking about food even when I wasn’t hungry.

Let me explain…

When we eat something sweet—whether sugar, artificial sweetener, or “natural” artificial sweetener (e.g., stevia), our brain’s reward center processes are activated. However, unlike sugar, artificial sweeteners fail to deactivate this process because they never deliver calories. Therefore, our brain will continue to signal that it they needs more sweet stuff because it isn’t satisfied.

A study mentioned in Scientific American demonstrated that the more diet soda an individual consumed, the lower the activation in the area in the brain responsible for taste-reward and satisfaction.

So, now I have this brain that is continually signaling for more food because it’s never satisfied. For me in recovery, this meant food thoughts—all damn day—whether I was hungry or not. Like an addict seeking dope, my brain wouldn’t let up until I gave it the real, gooey, good stuff. Yes, folks: sugar.

It delayed my intuitive eating efforts

It’s certainly nice to slow down and actually taste food, right? I began to learn intuitive eating (IE) a year into my recovery. While I certainly don’t recommend IE for initial recovery—because restoring one’s negative energy balance and eliminating life-threatening eating behaviors should be the primary focus—I do recommend it eventually.

According to the Lauren Fowler RD , “[Intuitive eating] takes the balance of connecting back to your body’s cues, rather than our rational minds—as well as taking inspired action.”

I personally think that the attitudes and principles that support intuitive eating are more congruent with true “healthy eating” than any diet or supposedly “healthy eating lifestyle”.

This is because intuitive eating is the antithesis of an eating disorder. The anti-diet teaches us to eat like infants again. To be void of any food rules and innately balance our energy intake.

However, the perpetual use of artificial sweeteners blocked me from intuitive eating. They desensitized my taste buds by continually and aggressively over-stimulating them. Artificial sweeteners are 160-600 times sweeter than natural sugar. So natural sugar, fruits, and so on, no longer tasted sweet to me.

Think of it this way

Have you ever seen an over-stimulated baby? They are closed off, inconsolable and unable to be curious. The same is true for our taste buds. Overstimulated taste buds are shut down and cannot be curious and open to notice subtleties in foods.

This overstimulation, coupled with me wanting “that sweet taste” on everything rendered me unable to taste the distinguishing flavors in any foods. Basically, my brain was trained to only fire happy chemicals in response to the overpowering assault on my tongue from the artificial sweetener. All my food had to taste like artificial sweetener or my brain was unimpressed.

Essentially, artificial sweeteners created a barrier. It physically and mentally prevented me from tasting my food and becoming an intuitive eater, which is essential for lasting recovery.

Elevated my anxiety

Recovery from ED, anxiety, or any psychopathology requires a strengthening of serotonin transporters between the amygdala—our primitive fight or flight response—and the prefrontal cortex, or the area of the brain responsible for mental control and emotional regulation.

In other words, to recover and stay recovered, we need to have the ability to gain perspective and make productive, healthy decisions. Even when the other stupid caveman parts of our brain (ahem, amygdala!) want to use behaviors and keep us in fear.

study shows that artificial sweetener is linked to anxiety and depression in vulnerable populations. And with a genetic propensity for an eating disorder, I am definitely within that population.

After taking artificial sweeteners out of my diet, my social anxiety definitely decreased. 

Scary huh? So, why put my mental health at risk by continuing to consume artificial sweeteners? If there are any measures I can take to avoid anxiety and depression I’m going to take them! And it seems like avoiding artificial sweeteners is one step I can take.

Take it from me

Are you ready to be done with your eating disorder once and for all? Ditch the artificial sweeteners. In my case, they only prolonged my food obsession, prevented me from eating intuitively, and gave me anxiety.

Furthermore, for the love of sweet, gooey goodness, eat sugar! I made the switch and my body and mind are in the best shape they’ve ever been.

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