March 18, 2013

Sweet Nothings

I hate diet soda. Can’t stand the stuff. My mom gets headaches from aspartame, which was the primary artificial sweetener when I was a kid, so we never had diet anything in the house. I’ve never gotten used to the fake taste. The aftertaste is like sickly sweet fuzz coating my mouth. If you see me drinking a diet drink it’s because there are no other drinks to be had, and I’m about to pass out from thirst. And I’ll still be making a face about it.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed moral objections to artificial sweeteners in addition to taste objections. If you are like most people I know, you are, right now, raising one eyebrow and wondering on what grounds I can morally object to artificial sweeteners (hereby to be known as AS so I can stop typing so much). Also before I go any farther, please keep in mind that this is largely a theoretical discussion. Nothing I say here is directed toward individuals. If you drink diet soda, I will still be your friend, and I do not think you’re a bad person. K?

My objection is very simply this: things that are sweet are meant to have calories. That is the way the world was made, and we should respect it. Using AS is a way of getting something (sweetness) for nothing. It’s an extension of a trend that I see in American society at large. As a nation, we seem to want the easy road all the time. We want to eat and drink whatever we want and not work out, but also not gain weight. We want to be lazy and spend our day at work on Facebook, but still get paid. We want to run around and drink and have sex and babies, but not take care of them. Clearly, I’m making broad generalizations, but hopefully you see where I’m going.

Sweetness is supposed to have consequences. It is supposed to have calories. Why? Because we need a certain amount of it as fuel for our bodies. I doubt that sugar tastes good as a coincidence. I suspect there are deep-seated evolutionary benefits for experiencing certain foods with certain chemical properties as sweet and pleasurable. It makes us want to eat it. That gives us fuel to survive and multiply. Where we run into trouble is when we eat too much of it. This was probably less of a problem in hunter gatherer societies many moons ago—less access to sweets and more exercise. It’s a bigger problem when a month’s worth of sugar is a mere binge-of-the-Halloween-candy-washed-down-with-soda away—lots of access and no exercise.

Rather than address this problem by practicing and teaching moderation, we took that time and energy and put it into finding a way to circumvent Mother Nature. We invented AS. It tastes sweet on our tongue, but our bodies can’t metabolize the substance, so it doesn’t add to our caloric intake. Brilliant, right? All I will say on the health front is that the only healthy, natural drink I know of that is calorie free is water. If you’re drinking diet soda, you’re drinking water and chemicals. To me, that does not sound good. I’ll take the water and skip the chemicals.

As good as our intentions may have been to invent AS, they don’t seem to have really done what they were meant to do. Obesity is rampant. I’m not going to pin all of obesity on diet soda, but the get something for nothing mindset is definitely a factor.

After having a baby I’ve been watching what I eat to try and shed those extra pregnancy pounds. My husband, whose foray into his 30s came with a bit of sympathy weight, has joined me. Sunday morning as we worked on our grocery list, he tried to point out some diet sodas that didn’t taste too bad. Sucralose doesn’t taste nearly as bad as aspartame. But taste alone is not the point. As I told him, if I’m having soda, then I am acknowledging that it comes with calories—just like I would if I were having a hard cider or juice or milk or any other non-water beverage. I try to take that into account and decide if the treat of the soda is worth the extra calories at that moment of my life. I actually drink soda pretty rarely, with the exception of post-throwing-a-party soda that needs to be gotten rid of, so a Dr. Pepper with my Chipotle is a treat (and none of it figure friendly!).

I have realized that other areas of my life my benefit from the same perspective—like my chocolate cravings. But really the philosophy extends to all of life. Nothing is free, and if something is worth doing, it’s worth the price (calories, time, money, whatever) that goes along with it. Not only that but, in some cases, the price is part of enjoyment, like investing time to practice piano or go for a run or demonstrate healthy food choices for our kids. The cost can actually make the prize even sweeter.

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