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Can a Sweetener Habit Add Inches to Your Waistline?

Updated on May 30, 2014

Sweet Deception

Do you drink diet soda in order to limit calories and satisfy your sweet tooth? You may be surprised to know that the artificial sweeteners contained in diet sodas and other sugar-free foods do neither of these things.

In fact, they are more likely to stimulate your appetite, causing you to consume a higher number of calories and crave more sweet foods.

Sweeteners Can Lead to Weight Gain

Several large studies have followed consumers of artificial sweeteners and found that they are more prone to weight gain than those who don't use them. Subjects consistently gained weight after drinking diet sodas for periods of one to eight years.

Researchers followed patients in a weight loss clinic to see how they would respond when sugar was replaced with artificial sweeteners. They ended up consuming more calories after they were told of the switch, showing that calorie-free sweeteners may lead people to believe that they can consume more calories from other sources.

Sweet Tastes Stimulate Your Appetite and Make You Hungry

Both animal and human studies have determined that a sweet taste stimulates appetite whether calories are involved or not.

One study found that after drinking artificially sweetened water, men of average weight experienced a boost in appetite. They didn't have the same experience when they took the sweetener in a capsule form, which never touched their taste buds. Compared to sugar, they became hungrier after tasting and swallowing the artificial sweetener. This demonstrates that the taste--not the substance itself--can cause an increase in appetite.

Human studies are difficult to measure. The way one person rates his hunger may differ from another person. But studies performed on animals have revealed the same effect: a sweet taste without the calories leads to overeating and excess calorie intake.

Sweet Foods are Addictive

Pleasure centers in the brain that are affected by drugs of abuse are also stimulated by food reward signals. And like drugs, certain foods that stimulate reward pathways can lead to binging, cravings, and withdrawal.

For thousands of years, the human body has received calories after experiencing a taste of sweetness. It hasn't adjusted to being fooled by calorie-free sweetener. The pairing of sweetness with a lack of calories leads to an increased appetite and often results in binge eating.

Sweet Tastes Without Calories: Incomplete Food Reward

There are two stages of food reward.

  1. First, a taste on the tongue sends signals to the brain to let it know that calories and nutrients are on their way. Flavorful foods stimulate a dopamine response to produce a feeling of satisfaction.
  2. The second signal is sent after food has been metabolized. This stage of food reward sends signals to the brain that are triggered by the food's nutrients.

Since artificial sweeteners have the taste without the nutrients or calories, they only partially activate food reward pathways. A sweet taste sends signals from the mouth, but nutrients that should activate the second stage of food reward don't exist. This stimulates the appetite and cravings for sweets.

Kick the Sugar Habit and Reduce Cravings

The sweetness of artificial sweeteners encourages sugar cravings and a sugar habit.

The more sweetener you use, the more you need. Those who consume more sugar have trained their tastes to prefer a more intense sweet flavor.

You may have noticed this in your own life. For example, during the holidays most people tend to eat more treats. Each day you feel cravings for more sweet goodies until January comes and you make the conscious decision to cut back.

The good news is that you can train yourself to let go of the need for daily sweets. Whether you use artificial or natural sweeteners, weaning yourself off of these products reduces your cravings for sweet foods.

Cutting back on diet sodas and other artificially sweetened products gives you the power to break free from the appetite-boosting nature of intense sweetness to enjoy the natural flavors in food.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 5 years ago from Hudson, FL

      kateshoults: It does, doesn't it? Thanks for stopping by!

    • profile image

      kateshoults 5 years ago

      Wow! I had no idea that artificial sweeteners made you more hungry. That explains a lot.

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 5 years ago from Hudson, FL

      @brittanytodd: Thanks! There are many more reasons why artificial sweeteners are bad . . . Dr. Mercola writes a lot about them.

      @Natashalh: I agree. It's best to stay away from that junk, and it's really just a habit for most people. Once you stop drinking soda, you don't even want it anymore.

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      People tell me I'm making it up, but artificial sweeteners make me feel terrible! I just don't drink any type of soda, at all, any more.

    • brittanytodd profile image

      Brittany Kennedy 5 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      This is a great hub! My husband always argues with me about how diet soda isn't that bad for him and I'll just have to show him your article. Great work!

    • Radcliff profile image

      Liz Davis 5 years ago from Hudson, FL

      Thank you, mjboomer! It's gotten to be such a cliché, hasn't it? Now we know why it happens so often.

    • mjboomer profile image

      Mike Elzner 5 years ago from Oregon

      Great Hub, after working in the food industry for many years, I always questioned why over weight people ate large meals and ordered diet drinks.