• Bari Stricoff, MSc, RDN

What Happened When I Stopped Having Equal In My Coffee?

Without a doubt, freshly brewed coffee is my favorite smell in the world. Some people want their homes to smell like freshly baked cookies or clean laundry, and I want mine to smell like a Starbucks…

The smell of coffee brings me comfort and solace, and without a doubt, reminds me of my parents and grandparents. No matter the time of day, when our family gets together, a fresh pot of coffee is always involved. I even remember my grandfather brewing coffee in his old-fashioned percolator on the stovetop. I think he gave me my first cup at the age of 2 – and while I would love to blame my 5-foot stature on an early introduction to caffeine, my 4’11” mother is to blame (sorry mom).

Coffee is my comfort food. My dad used to wake me up in the mornings for school and hand me a cup in bed since the age of 11. I wasn’t addicted to coffee (caffeine) when I was younger, I simply LOVED the taste. I drank my coffee just like my mother and grandmother did, black with 2 Equal.

I didn’t choose to use sweeteners because they were zero calories, I choose them because that is how I was introduced to coffee and preferred the taste. My mother and grandmother, on the other hand, 100% choose to use sweeteners for their calorie-free status, which is fine. My mom used to always joke and say she “didn’t like to drink her calories unless they gave her a buzz” hahaha (she is very funny).

But many people, including my clients, choose sweeteners instead of sugar because they’re zero calories. I am not here to comment on whether you should have sweeteners or real sugar (there is a lot of research out there, which would lend to a different blog post). I just want to share my experience on why and what happened when I ditched the Equal in my coffee.

As you guys may know, I wrote my Master’s dissertation on the implications of gut health on the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa. During my extensive research, I learned A LOT about the gut microbiome, the importance of a healthy gut and the consequences of a disrupted or imbalanced gut microbiome (also called dysbiosis). While they were not included in my dissertation, I came across several papers discussing the impact of artificial sweeteners (AS) on the gut microbiome; which, sparked my interest at the time because I was having an average of 4 packets of Equal a day. And as a self-proclaimed gut-health enthusiast, I was shocked to find out I may be unintentionally harming my own gut microbes. I eat a very healthy and well balanced diet that is rich in fiber and fermented foods, which helps promote a healthy gut, but was I also causing damage by including the artificial sweeteners? I couldn’t help but to think that all my positive efforts to improve my gut health were then being sabotaged by my love for the way I enjoyed my coffee.

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic compounds that are not digested in our intestines. In fact, AS are excreted structurally unchanged from when they were ingested, making them metabolically inert, or inactive. Yet, although AS are not absorbed by our bodies, they do come into direct contact with our gut microbiome. The research illustrates that when artificial sweeteners are consumed, the gut bacterial profile shifts resulting in an increase in Bacteroides and a decrease in Lactobacilli. At this point, the light bulb goes off in my head because all my research has concluded the importance of the Lactobacilli family in gut health, and the negative health associations for individuals with high levels of Bacteroides. I was shocked to understand what I have been putting my gut through, in regards to potentially harming or disrupting my microbial balance and diversity. I started to think about my personal gut issues, which led me to make the following connections…

(Warning: I do get a bit personal with my bowel habits)

Throughout my adolescent and adult life, I have never considered my bowel habits “regular”. Going to the bathroom every 3-7 days was my “normal”, sometimes not going for 10 days at a time. I considered myself to have chronic constipation but no one was too concerned. I ate a very high fiber diet, being predominately plant based since the age of 15. In fact, the doctors weren’t concerned either and passed it off to being genetic, since my mom and grandmother were both the same way…

My mother, my grandmother and myself all suffered from chronic constipation...

My mother, my grandmother and myself all consumed an average of 4 servings of artificial sweetener a day…

This was no coincidence! I then shifted my research to investigate the microbial profiles of those that suffer with IBS-C (constipation) and was far from shocked with the results. THOSE THAT SUFFER WITH IBS-C HAVE BEEN SHOWN TO HAVE INCREASED LEVELS OF BACTEROIDES AND DECREASED LEVELS OF LACTOBACCILI!

I felt like I had made some marvel scientific discovery at this point (note, I hadn’t. I was just able to combine 2 areas of research and apply it to my personal gut issues). So, could my constipation that I had blamed on poor genetics be confounded by my AS intake?

I was thrilled at the possibility that I could reverse my chronic constipation. The next step was to get rid of the Equal in my coffee (not an easy thing to do). I have become so used to the taste of Equal in my coffee and I hated the way real sugar dissolved. So, after a lot of experimentation, I found I love my coffee with unsweetened Soy or Almond milk. After 6 months of ditching the AS from my coffee, with little to no other dietary changes, I can report that I now have VERY REGULAR bowel habits! This was one of those “very proud dietitian” moments because I was able to combine the evidence-based research with my own dietary habits to improve the quality of my digestive tract!

At the end of the day, by removing the artificial sweetener from my coffee, I had significantly improved my chronic constipation. This is a 100% anecdotal experience, meaning just because this worked for me, does not mean it will work for you! However, the science behind how I relieved my constipation is evidence-based. At the end of the day, if you are struggling with any digestive issues, including constipation, I recommend you consult a Registered Dietitian!

Coffee with Unsweetened Soy Milk

Please let me know if you have any questions!

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