You probably use artificial sweeteners if you’re trying to lose weight or cut calories. Artificial sweeteners have few or zero calories, but provide the sweet taste you crave in many foods and beverages.
But a new study suggests artificial sweeteners may be working against you, instigating sugar cravings and nudging weight gain.
There are 26 sweeteners on the market, 10 of which are caloric (including table sugar). Eight are classified as artificial sweeteners (saccharin, aspartame, Ace–k, sucralose, neotame, advantame, steviol glycosides and Luo Han Guo extracts), 11 sweeteners are classified as sugar alcohols and polyols (sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol among them), and four artificial sweeteners are not yet approved by the FDA (alitame, cyclamates, neohesperdine and thaumatin). The eight artificial sweeteners that are extremely low or zero calorie are also incredibly sweet.
Many sugar-free or diet foods use these artificial sweeteners. The new study featured in the journal Cell Metabolism suggests that zero calorie artificial sweeteners affect specific centers in the brain, changing appetite and taste perceptions. The study found that there is a precise area in the brain that senses and processes the sweet taste of food and its energy (calorie) content.
There have been mixed messages about whether artificial sweeteners are useful for losing weight. It does seem intuitive that if you drink diet soda or eat foods made with artificial sweeteners, you would reduce calories in your diet and lose weight.
A review of several studies suggests that regular use can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, actually causing weight gain and increased BMI. A 2010 study suggested that artificial sweeteners had a negative impact on the metabolism of teens, nudging weight gain rather than weight loss.
One theory is that when your brain senses sweet taste that is not accompanied by energy or calories, it is confused and therefore instigates the desire to eat more so you get calories (energy).
In the case of this new study, fruit flies were put on a five-day diet filled with foods containing sucralose. When they were then given naturally sweetened foods, they ate 30 percent more calories than anticipated. The researchers replicated their findings in a mouse study as well.
The researchers concluded that when animals chronically consume foods with artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, the physiologic effect is an increase of the sweet intensity of “real sugar” and a drive to eat more food. It’s a case of a fake ingredient not replacing the “real deal” and actually intensifying the taste of real sugar, making you want more. And more. And moreThe researchers agree with the theory that the fake ingredients confuse the brain center that senses sweetness that’s not accompanied by actual calories, so the center stimulates cravings and the desire to eat more. They also want consumers to realize that “fake sugars that are calorie free” may not be innocuous, and may actually instigate the very behaviors we’re aiming to control.
Coincidentally, the researchers also found that regular consumption of artificial sweeteners seems to instigate hyperactivity, decreased sleep quality and insomnia. It should be noted that a separate recent study also suggested that consuming artificial sweeteners during pregnancy may increase BMI in children.
The message from all these studies appears to be that artificial sweeteners could conceivably contribute to obesity rather than help to prevent this chronic condition. You certainly don’t want to be choosing foods and drinks that make you crave more food and drink.
Here are some tips to help you limit or avoid artificial sweeteners:
Use a splash of juice to add flavor to plain water or sparkling water
Add berries of sections of fruit to ice cubes so when they melt in water they help to flavor the drink
Make ice cubes out of brewed tea or nut milks to flavor water or coffee
Eat more fruit so you begin to appreciate the taste of natural sweetness
Use pureed fruit in baked goods instead of artificial sweeteners
Serve fruit family style on the table to encourage fruit as a side dish to the main meal
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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she’s been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.