Just say no

Have I mentioned that I am a complete diet soda addict? I have been for longer than I care to remember. Diet Coke has seen me through college, work, and more road trips than I can count. Aspartame is a bit like that bad boyfriend we’ve all had. You know  he’s bad for you. He’s not treating you right and you should break up with him, but every time you resolve to kick him to the curb, he somehow he always worms his way back into your good graces. He shows up all darkly cool and beautiful, and you decide to give him one more chance. Just a little bit won’t hurt, right? Then, next thing you know, you’re together again.

At this point, I can’t even remember how many times I’ve given up diet soda. I’ve always had this vague idea that this stuff cannot be good for me (I’m looking at you, formaldehyde!), and have often thought that we don’t really know all of the long range effects of spending a lifetime of consuming it. The reality is that my generation is one of the first ones to grow up on it. At the same time (shame on me!), I never really started looking into it too deeply until my recent endeavor to cut processed foods and chemicals out of my diet. If you google aspartame, there are more articles out there than you could read in a lifetime. The Mayo Clinic suggests the concerns about artificial sweeteners are exaggerated. Other sources suggest that aspartame poisoning can produce serious side effects ranging from physiological to psychological and even death. And yet others, say that the jury is still out.

All I know is that it seems like a lot of our food problems began when we started industrializing and polluting our sources of food with all sorts of chemical additives. You can’t walk through a grocery store without being overwhelmed with visions of “lite” this and “sugar free” that, and yet you also can’t walk through the same store without seeing a lot of heavy people pushing around carts filled with processed foods, even foods altered to take out the fats and replace the sugar, with synthetic alternatives. And I get it. While I am trying desperately not to be, I am fat myself. I’ve pushed around that same cart. And where has it gotten me? Am I thinner? Happier? (That’s really what all those commercials of happy people stuffing their faces with Big Macs are telling us isn’t it? “You want this. Eat this and your will be happy!”)  Healthier?

I don’t think so.

I am no scientist. I don’t even play one on t.v., but I do have an anecdotal story. I come from a family of mixed nationality. My father was American, my mother is European. In my youth, I spent about every other summer visiting my grandparents in Germany. By the time I reached high school, having been a pudgy kid who lost weight in middle school, I was pretty consumed with weight and diet. Between the ages of about 15 and 18, I aerobicized obsessively. I manically tracked what I ate, and could tell you the calories and fat content of just about any food you put in front of me. Not exactly a healthy relationship with food. And it was a lot of work. I’m one of those people who, in those times when I have been thin, has always had to struggle to stay that way. Even then, I thought I was “too fat” (there’s a whole other post in that!).

The thing is that during those summers when I would stay with my grandparents, I always lost weight and it was never work. I walked a bit here and there, but did not make the same concerted effort to exercise as I would have at home. I didn’t count anything. You don’t turn down Oma cooking. I just ate what I felt like, and ate well. I didn’t even sweat having the odd chocolate bar or piece of cake, something that would never have happened at home.

My grandmother was a great cook and was not one to skimp on the rich sauces. While meat portions were not as huge or beefy (or probably hormone filled) as they tend to be here in the US, there was no “light” anything in her house. The only thing lacking in her kitchen were processed foods. Everything she cooked was fresh, delicious and came from the green grocer across the street. And I never struggled with weight in the months I spent there and I never felt deprived. It just came off naturally.

So, I have to wonder: When we fill our bodies with synthetic non-nutrients, does it confuse our metabolism? Do our systems really know what to do with them? What is the effect of a lifetime of consuming them? Why is it that obesity has been on the rise since we started eating all these frankenfoods and chemicals? And, even if all these chemicals like aspartame are FDA approved, why is it that when I remove them from my body, I feel so much better? I might even be willing to believe that I am impressionable and have talked myself into thinking I feel better, but the scale doesn’t lie. And, frankly, I don’t think I am all that impressionable either.

So, when you tell me there are potential concerns about artificial sweeteners, do my ears perk up? You bet. Ultimately, for me, if I am going to the trouble to remove all this artificial stuff from my food, I have to look at it in the beverages I consume as well. Even if the skeptics are right and it doesn’t harm me, aspartame certainly isn’t helping me either. I don’t know if this attempt to kick the diet soda will be successful. I sure hope so. The only thing I do know is that I am on day 5, my caffeine headaches are gone, I’ve replaced the artificial sweetener, food coloring and chemicals with iced herbal teas and mineral water. I feel good and that is enough for me.

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