Artificial sweeteners are intended to help people cut calories and therefore lose weight. The harsh reality is that consuming low or no-calorie sweeteners may actually make you eat more, leading to weight gain.
For years, we’ve known that artificial sweeteners like those in diet sodas may be more detrimental than beneficial when it comes to weight loss, but we’re now a step closer to understanding why.
A new study published this month in Cell Metabolism suggests that artificial sweeteners trigger a starvation state in the brain, causing the brain to seek more energy by consuming more calories. The brain generally associates sweet tastes with calories. But when the sweet exists without the calories, the brain adjusts by increasing hunger, causing us to eat more.
In the study, Australian researchers fed fruit flies either a diet of yeast and sucrose or one with artificial sucralose that is used in a variety of low-calorie foods. The flies fed the sugar-free diet consumed 30 percent more calories than those who consumed sugar. And when the artificial sweeteners were removed from their diet, calorie consumption returned to normal. These findings were replicated in mice.
Previous research also underlines the potential detriment of synthetic sugars, linking artificial sweeteners to an alteration in the gut microbe population that promotes calorie absorption, and suggesting that sucralose may impair the body’s ability to process regular sugar. In addition to the biological reaction to artificial sweeteners, the fight is also mental.
“Battling our ingrained eating habits is a challenge every patient undergoing weight loss surgery must face. Many who have utilized sweets as a form of comfort, reward or socialization find it difficult to give these things up,” says Sheri Sellars, BSN, RN, Nicholson Clinic Nurse Educator. “Studies do show a more severe consequence for remaining obese than it does for use of artificial sweeteners.”
Despite the findings by Australian researchers, it isn’t recommended to ditch the artificial sweeteners in favor of real sugar, which on its own can lead to overeating and weight gain. Instead, focus on a diet that is low in sugar — artificial or real — and high in fiber, protein, healthy fats and vitamins.
If you are looking to sweeten your tea or morning coffee, a new genre of natural sweeteners are also available that “may be a solution to the poor health potentials of obesity and its link to sweetened foods, presenting an alternative to the artificial sweeteners like Splenda, aspartame or saccharin,” Sellars explains. “Patients may wish to consider natural sweeteners such as Stevia or monk fruit extract to flavor their coffee instead when they find cutting sweets out entirely to be challenging.”