Body Not Fooled by Artificial Sweeteners, Study Shows

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If you think you’re cutting down on calories by reaching for diet soft drinks and other artificially sweetened food and beverages, you might want to consider a new strategy. A new study suggests it might not be so easy to trick our bodies out of sugar cravings (and calorie consumption) by substituting artificial sweeteners for the real thing.

Artificial sweeteners, while often providing a sweeter taste than real sugar, contain few or no calories, which is why substituting them for high-sugar snacks has been thought to aid weight loss. However, researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine have found that without the energy kick real sugar provides (what they call the sugar-to-energy pathway), fake sugar cannot fool our brains into feeling satisfied. In fact, researchers think that people who eat sugar-free sweet foods when they are tired or hungry may be more likely to relapse and consume even more calories in the long run than people who opted for real sugar-based treats.

When the tongue tastes something sweet, the brain expects an influx of glucose, which increases levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and causes feelings of satisfaction and reward. When the brain senses sweetness but doesn’t get an energy boost, however, it doesn’t provide those feel-good effects. In the study, scientists monitored the brain activity and behavior of mice given real and artificial sweet foods. Given the choice between fake and real sweeteners, the mice quickly gravitated towards real sugar even though the artificial options tasted sweeter.

Scientists believe these results are translatable to humans who try to eat low- or no-calorie snacks when they are hungry or tired. Because they are not being metabolically satisfied, they are likely to continue to have sugar cravings and may pick up even more calorically dense foods later on.

Researchers suggest a possible solution for those looking to satisfy cravings without overdoing the calories. Mixing artificially sweet foods with a little bit of real sugar or adding a small real-sugar treat (or fresh fruit) to your lower-calorie one may give the body its desired energy boost and keep both your brain and waistline happy.