Artificial sweeteners are a dieter’s dream – adding sweet flavor to everything from calorie-free soda to sugar-free ice creams and cookies. However, although the number of Americans eating artificially sweetened products has ballooned from 70 million in 1987 to over 160 million today, our national obesity rate is skyrocketing as well. Why the disconnect?
Researchers suspect that artificial sweeteners may actually lead to weight gain, not weight loss. Why?
1. Sweetness is a Clue to our Brains
Throughout the history of mankind, our brains have intuitively understood that sweetness and calories went together. When we eat a sweet, tasty food, our brains understand that and think we’re getting a substantial amount of calories from it. Therefore, our brain sends us the message to cut back on other foods, or to stop eating sooner. Sweetness = calories = the need to stop eating.
2. Artificially Sweetened Foods Trick our Brains
The International Journal of Obesity published a study performed on two groups of rats. One group was fed sugar-sweetened liquids, the other group ate a mix of sugar and artificially sweetened liquids. After 10 days, both groups were offered a high-calorie chocolate snack, followed by their regular food.
Guess which group overindulged in the regular food? You guessed it – the group that drank the artificially sweetened liquids. It seems that when we drink artificially sweetened products, our brains are confused when those products don’t deliver the calories their taste seems to promise. We then try to find those calories elsewhere by craving more food.
3. Brain Interference
Our brains intuitively associate sweet tastes with calories. When sweet taste accompanies zero calories, our brains become confused and our whole system becomes unable to determine appropriate amounts of foods to eat in order to maintain a healthy weight.
4. Higher Fat and Salt Content
Aside from the whole brain-tricking issue, there’s another way artificial sweeteners promote weight gain. Often when food manufacturers reduce sugar content, they compensate by increasing the amount of fat, salt, or other unhealthy ingredients. The same is true of low- and no-fat products. All of these food manipulations with artificial ingredients is wreaking havoc with our bodies’ abilities to determine how much of a food to eat.
5. Use Your Brain – Confused or Not
If all of this scientific talk is leaving you feeling a bit helpless, don’t despair. Despite the confusing possibilities that studies suggest, we still have an advantage over lab rats: we can use our brains to make nutritional choices that lead to good health. Next time you’re tempted to drink that diet soda, you can say “no” to it and replace it with a sparkling water or tea. Or, you can say “yes” to it, but you can turn on your alert to make wise food choices during the rest of the day – not using it as a free ticket to unlimited snacking on cookies and chips.