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Pavlov and Artificial Sweeteners

Pavlov and Artificial Sweeteners
January 3, 2010 Patrick Nemechek, D.O.

One of the most well established concepts in psychology is that animals (including humans) learn about relationships among the events they experience.  These repeated experiences can change how we react to the events we’ve experienced.  This is the basis of Pavlovian psychology.  Research on the use of artificial sweeteners suggests just such a mechanism may be affecting humans as we consume more and more of these products in effort to control our weight.

Research suggests that animals use sweet taste to predict the caloric contents of food.  This is a biological phenomenon that prevents animals from over eating and becoming unfit and unhealthy.

What scientists are beginning to believe is that by eating sweet non-caloric sweeteners (Splenda, Nutri-Sweet, Stevia), our brains are losing the ability to understand that sweet equals calories. This physiological disconnect between sweet and calories leads to increased hunger and increased food intake.

In the U.S., there has been a significant increase in the use of non-caloric sweeteners during the obesity epidemic of the last several decades.  A common explanation of the increased use of non-caloric sweeteners and increased incidence of obesity is that people have turned to calorie-free sweeteners as a means of decreasing their calorie consumption and controlling body weight.

However, a growing number of scientific studies suggest that the increased intake of no-calorie sugar substitutes may actually be one of the factors fueling the obesity epidemic by actually increasing our hunger and subsequent calorie intake.

This ‘artificial sweetener causes obesity theory’ also correlates with recent data from human studies that have shown an increased risk for obesity and metabolic syndrome in individuals consuming beverages sweetened with high-intensity sweeteners.

So what can we take away from all of this?  Be careful, just because a product is listed as having zero calories does not mean it may not be having a significant effect o your overall calorie intake.  Interestingly, when I mention this to my patients, several of them have told me they can feel a very strong hunger drive after having some sort of diet soda and have already learned to avoid them.

Just because you don’t feel hungry right after drinking a diet soda, doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting you in a more subtle way.

I hate to say it but weight reduction and weight maintenance don’t always come easy.  It requires knowledge, effort and persistence.  Refer to our Science of Hunger Guide if you want to learn more about losing weight in a healthy, well-balanced manner.

I’d like to hear from any of you who have felt this hunger stimulating effect of artificial sweeteners.


  1. Naomi 2 years ago

    I’ve been an avid stevia user for the last four years. I’ve recently given it up due to your advice of it being harmful to gut bacteria, and I have found I tend to over eat goodies made with stevia and sugar alcohols. I’ve heard you do approve monk fruit and natural sugar forms in moderation. My question is since monk fruit is essentialy calorie free does it also increase the hunger drive like other artificial sugars?
    Again thank you so much for all you do.

    • Author
      Patrick Nemechek, D.O. 2 years ago

      I have no idea what monk fruit and doubt I said its OK to eat.

      Your question is an interesting one.

  2. Mark Shoffner 10 years ago

    Check out this article, it’s enlightening! And yes, that is a bad pun.

  3. Robyn Duncan 11 years ago

    I’ve tried to use artificial sweeteners as a way to satisfy my sweet tooth…..doesn’t work;( and I don’t lose weight. It is hard work to get your weight under control, especially after being out of control for a number of years. After getting off of artificial sweeteners, and staying off of sugar and carbs for the most part, I find I don’t want sweets NEARLY as much as I did:) And when I do want something sweet, just a bit or two is plenty to satisfy……fruit tastes sweeter to me as well.:) Thanks for the info Dr. N:)

  4. Dean 11 years ago

    It’s too bad that we can’t find an anti-Pavlovian mechanism to make effective weight and appetite controls. Some Utopian day perhaps.

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