Think You’re Fooling Your Brain with the Fake Sweeteners…Not!

The HealthGal Health Guide
  • There has been an ongoing discussion, some might call it an argument, between health professionals and food industry representatives with regards to the impact of using zero calorie sugar replacements, especially when it comes to diet and weight loss goals.  Many dieters turn to diet soda and those little packets of zero calorie sweeteners throughout their day, in an effort to avoid sugar, reduce calorie load, and, especially, to get some satisfaction while avoiding sweetened foods and beverages. 


    Certainly when these zero calorie sweeteners like Sweet & Low, saccharine, and more recently, Splenda and stevia came on the market, it seemed intuitive to use them if you were dieting.  And patients with diabetes or pre-diabetes needed a substitute, in an effort to reduce the use of sugar and sugar-sweetened food products in their daily living.  And who doesn’t chew sugar-free gum as a diet aid tool?  What dieter doesn’t carry little packets of “fake sugar” with them on the go, so they can avoid table sugar?  It surely made sense to most dieticians and nutritionists, when counseling people who wanted to lose weight or stabilize their weight, to suggest the use of zero calorie sweeteners as one tool in the battle of the bulge. 

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    Science now seems to suggest otherwise.  So too the reality of diet soda drinkers, who are heavy and continue to stay heavy…so what gives?


    Research published in The Journal of Physiology suggests that “our pleasure in consuming sweet solutions is driven, to a great extent, by the amount of energy it provides.”   So the payoff to the brain is greater, when it get the real deal, as in real sugar.  Give it another product that may look like sugar and taste like sugar but NOT provide an actual energy payoff in the form of calories, and there may be a critical failure.  


    Studies have shown that when you take hungry mice and offer them standard table sugar or “sweeter” artificial zero calorie sweeteners, they will choose the table sugar, despite the extra sweet taste of the fake sugar.  When given the fake sugar, they simply want more food. The researchers believe this phenomenon is being replicated in humans and may explain why we are still gaining weight and experiencing escalating rates of obesity, despite the lower calorie effort being employed by the use of zero calorie sweeteners. 


    The question to ask when using these no calorie drinks and packets, is whether their use is helping us to take in fewer calories daily, or whether we compensate by actually eating and drinking more?  I think that it can be a helpful tool for certain individuals who may even defy these research findings.  For others, a better choice may be to significantly reduce the amount of dietary sugar, and to use real sugar delicately so that their brain experiences energy calories along with the small portions of the real deal. 


    The biggest problem may be the fact that “a little may not go a long way,” because we have become somewhat addicted to large amounts or constant streams of sweet foods and drinks.  It may be incredibly hard to reduce and control the amount of sugar we use because our brains crave it. 


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    That’s why limiting the use of sugar and sugar-driven foods in your child’s diet, and using real fruit and pureed fruit as a sweetener is a crucial part of avoiding sugar-dependence and helping to control their weight at a crucial stage of development.  The natural sugar found in fruit is accompanied by fiber, and that fiber helps to fill us up while modulating the blood sugar rise that occurs when we digest the fruit with its natural sugar content.  Whole grains are another good choice because as you digest these grains, the effort and energy needed to digest the complete grains helps to mitigate the blood sugar spike.


    The main conclusion of the researchers also has to be digested a bit.  Statistics suggest that despite artificial sweeteners, we are still gaining weight…loads of weight.  And their research seems to indicate a feasible explanation for this phenomenon:  Exclusively trying to live on artificial sweeteners may not be helping most of us fight the fat. 


    Eating as much sugar as many of us are choosing to do is certainly fueling obesity.  Both real sugar and artificial sweeteners have a role in a dieter’s menu.  Now we need to figure out the best way to use both, so that we have pleasurable eating, control calories, and avoid weight gain and an addiction to refined sugar.  Not an easy task.


    Amy Hendel is a health professional, journalist and host of Food Rescue, Simple Smoothies and What’s for Lunch?  Author of Fat Families, Thin Families and The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, she tweets health headlines daily @HealthGal1103.  Catch her guest appearances on Marie! on Hallmark and other local and national news and talk shows.  


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Published On: September 24, 2013