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.