David L. Katz, MD
Photo: Mackenzie Stroh
Q: I've been insanely chewing sugar-free gum—two to three large packs a day. (When I "cheat," it's with sugared gumballs.) Am I addicted to the artificial sweeteners?
— Kris Dee, Toronto

A: Experts debate whether addiction to foods and flavors exists; I believe it does. That said, it is unlikely you are addicted to sugar-free gum. You can develop the habit of having something in your mouth, independent of its sweet taste, and come to depend on it for, say, stress relief or creative thinking. That's not addiction. What may come close, however, is your need for something sweet. Growing evidence suggests that sugar has addictive properties—the more we eat, the more we need. Because you can satisfy your cravings with real sugar, technically, you're not addicted to artificial sweeteners.

If your gum habit isn't doing you any harm, perhaps you don't need to break it (chewing the sugar-free kind helps clean the teeth, exercises the jaw—even burns a few calories). But if you want to stop, try retraining your sweet tooth. Start by trimming sweetness from your diet in the places it will be missed the least (switch to dressings, cereals, breads, and spreads without added sugars). Then move to the tougher items (replace soda with water, skip dessert). You'll have to scrutinize labels for sugar by other names, such as high-fructose corn syrup. Also try chewing each piece of gum longer, and cut back on the number of pieces each day. To subdue a sweet tooth, you need to wean it, not feed it. Feed it, and it will flourish.
As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.

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