A Sugarcoated Risk
The dangers of calorie-free sweeteners
The cracking sound of diet soda cans opening has become common during dance breaks at the studio. Calorie-free sports drinks have taken the place of water bottles, and lunch boxes are filled with low-calorie yogurt, Jell-O and juice. Blue, pink and yellow packets of sweeteners have become a staple.
Artificial sweeteners make dancers feel like they can have it all—a shortcut to satisfying cravings and maintaining energy without guilt. But these products are shrouded in controversy. Medical professionals are raising questions pointing to weight gain, dehydration and nutrient deficiency. What is most confusing about these products is that determining their safety isn’t exactly black and white. Health professionals are wary of the risks associated with these often chemically created products, yet they carry the stamp of approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Allison Wagner, a registered dietician who works with the Cincinnati Ballet, finds some fake sugars more alarming than others because of what they’re made from and how the body processes them. For instance, aspartame, commonly found in diet soda, is created by chemically combining two acids. “The body breaks aspartame down into formaldehyde. Do you really want that in your body?” asks Wagner. (See “Sugar Substitute Breakdown” on this page.)
But the greatest and clearest danger of low-cal or calorie-free sugar substitutes is the effect they have on dancers’ nutrition practices. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, has examined data suggesting artificial sweeteners may increase sugar cravings and result in poor food choices. This can cause weight gain, since it’s common for dieters to overeat once they’re exposed to the foods they have been limiting. And by not adding real sugar into coffee or tea, they may assume that they have been saving large quantities of calories, though skipping it saves next to nothing. A sugar packet holds just 15.
Leslie Bonci, a sports dietetics specialist for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the Pittsburgh Steelers, says that dancers get into trouble when caffeinated, sugar-free drinks and snacks start to replace high-energy foods. Worse is when they take the place of water, promoting dehydration, since these soft drinks often cause dancers to drink less of the replenishing fluids they need in their daily diet. Plus, soda can cause calcium deficiency. “Phosphoric acid in soda leeches calcium from your bones,” says Wagner.
A studio environment should promote healthy habits to help students succeed. “It saddens me when I work with these kids on a regular basis and then find out that they were given soda or candy at a recent dance competition for energy,” says Wagner. She feels strongly that these items should not be found anywhere in a dance environment, including studio vending machines or snack areas, and especially in the place that has the greatest influence on young dancers—the hands of a faculty member. DT
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer. She also writes for Pointe and Dance Magazine.
Sugar Substitute Breakdown
Some claim to be natural, but many are chemical creations. You should know what is going into your body.
Found in: Sweet’N Low, TaB soda
Ingredients: Made from a compound of toluene, which can be found in petroleum
Found in: Equal Classic, Diet Coke, Trident gum
Ingredients: Created by chemically combining two amino acids—aspartic acid and phenylalanine
Found in: Splenda, Swiss Miss, low-calorie baked goods
Ingredients: Made through the chemical modification of real sugar
Found in: Truvia, SweetLeaf, vitaminwater Zero
Ingredients: The sweetening agent comes from the leaves of the stevia plant—an herb in the chrysanthemum family.
Ditch artificial sugars with the help of these naturally low-calorie alternatives, suggested by Cincinnati Ballet dietician Allison Wagner and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dietetic specialist Leslie Bonci.
When craving sweets:
- A frozen banana dipped in dark chocolate
- Baked apples with oatmeal and cinnamon
- Sweet fruits such as apples, bananas, strawberries and pears
For an energy boost:
- 1/4 cup fresh or dried fruit
- 1 ounce almonds or pistachios
Instead of soda:
Fill a glass with seltzer water and infuse it with your favorite fruits: lemon, lime, oranges and strawberries are flavorful. So are mint leaves. Slice and let them sit in the drink for a few minutes. Experiment until you find your favorite combination.