Intuitively, if you want to lose or maintain weight, choosing no-sugar, no-calorie food and drinks seems like a no brainer. If you are one of the millions of people who choose “diet”, “light”, and “sugar-free” products for this reason, get ready to be shocked by what you will discover today.
Artificial Sweeteners Make You Fat
A recent study followed 749 people for over 9 years tracking various health and lifestyle factors (1). Three of the many measurements taken were how many sodas individuals consumed, whether or not they were diet or regular, and waist circumference.
The researchers found that participants who did not consume diet sodas had their waist circumference increase less than 1 inch on average. Participants who drank less than one diet soda a day had their waist circumference increase nearly 2 inches. And finally, participants who drank diet sodas every day, or more than once a day, had their waist circumference increase over 3 inches.
In other words increases in abdominal fat are 3 times greater in daily diet soda users as in non-users!
The worst part is that belly fat consists of visceral fat which accumulates around organs like your heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. When these organs are surrounded by fat they have to work harder to perform their important jobs… like keeping you alive!
Another study followed 3,682 adults over a 7-8 year period (3). This study found that drinkers of artificially sweetened beverages like diet soda and coffee, had higher BMIs than those who did not drink them. And the more artificially sweetened beverages people drank the more their BMI increased over the 7-8 year period.
To give you a different perspective, those who drank artificially sweetened beverages had a 47% higher increase in BMI than those who do not.
Artificial Sweeteners Increase Cravings
When it comes to sweet tasting foods and beverages your brain’s natural response is to send the signal for you to eat more of them. You might think this is the perfect reason to consume artificially sweetened foods but guess again.
When you eat a sweet treat with no calories your brain gets confused. This causes you to crave even more sweets than you would if you’d have eaten the full sugar version.
One study performed functional MRI’s on the brains of volunteers while they took sips of water sweetened with sugar or water sweetened with sucralose (Splenda). The scans showed that sugar activates the reward center of the brain while sucralose does not (4).
For this reason artificially sweetened food and drinks don’t fully satisfy cravings for natural sugar. In other words artificial sweeteners don’t affect the reward center of brain, therefore, they will just leave you craving more and more.
Sucralose is not the only bad guy. Another study found that aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) also increases hunger ratings when compared to natural sugar (5). And yet another found that aspartame, acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One), and saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Necta Sweet) also increased cravings and motivation to eat (6).
Finally, because artificial sweeteners are so much sweeter than natural sugar it, for lack of a better term, screws up your taste buds. Overtime you will require sweeter and sweeter foods and beverages to “feel like” you are tasting something sweet.
Check out how much sweeter artificial sweeteners are compared to regular sugar:
Sweetness as compared to sugar
|Aspartame||Equal®, NutraSweet®, others||180 times sweeter than sugar|
|Acesulfame-K||Sunett®, Sweet One®||200 times sweeter than sugar|
|Saccharin||Sweet’N Low®, Necta Sweet®, others||300 times sweeter than sugar|
|Sucralose||Splenda®||600 times sweeter than sugar|
How to Quit
#1 Reduce Your Intake.
If you have been consuming artificial sweetened food and drinks for many years going cold turkey probably isn’t the best way to go. A better option is to reduce your intake overtime. For example, if you drink several artificially sweetened drinks a day try to cut back by one or two for about two weeks, then cut back by one or two again. If you use artificial sweeteners in your coffee and tea I suggest that you take the same little by little approach.
#2 Replace them with a Natural Calorie-Free Sugar Substitute
One option you have to replace your artificial sweetener with is stevia. One thing I want to point out is that there are a lot of stevia products out there that are mixed with other chemicals and artificial sweeteners. Check the label before you buy, it should say “stevia” or “stevia extract” and nothing else.
#3 Be Mindful
Two things to keep in mind: stevia can have a slightly bitter aftertaste when you first start using it but it soon fades after a week or two. And just because it is natural doesn’t mean your brain will respond to it any differently than other no-calorie sweeteners.
Stevia is a much better option than artificial sweeteners but it should still be used sparingly so your taste buds and sugar cravings don’t go out of whack.
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- Yang, Q. (2010). Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 83(2), 101–108.
- Fowler, S. P., Williams, K., & Hazuda, H. P. (2015). Diet Soda Intake Is Associated with Long‐Term Increases in Waist Circumference in a Biethnic Cohort of Older Adults: The San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 63(4), 708-715.
- Fowler SP, Williams K, Resendez RG, Hunt KJ, Hazuda HP, Stern MP Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2008 Aug; 16(8):1894-900
- Frank GK, Oberndorfer TA, Simmons AN, et al. Sucrose activates human taste pathways differently from artificial sweetener. Neuroimage. 2008;39:1559-69.
- Blundell JE, Hill AJ. Paradoxical effects of an intense sweetener (aspartame) on appetite. Lancet. 1986 May 10; 1(8489):1092-3.
- Rogers PJ, Carlyle JA, Hill AJ, Blundell JE. Uncoupling sweet taste and calories: comparison of the effects of glucose and three intense sweeteners on hunger and food intake. Physiol Behav. 1988; 43(5):547-52.