You try so hard to diet and eat right. You know that calorie-laden candies, cookies and cakes are sure to wreck your diet, so you try to curb your sweet cravings by grabbing a diet soda. Unfortunately, your efforts to make the right choice actually might be sabotaging your good intentions. Artificial sweeteners might fool your taste buds, but your brain and digestive system know the difference and will ramp up their efforts to obtain the real thing.
The first artificial sweetener dates to 1879, when a scientist working on coal tar derivatives tasted his work. The substance he had created was saccharine, which is 300 times sweeter than sugar. For many years, it was used only medicinally as a product for diabetics needing to limit their sugar intake. Two factors contributed to its rising popularity in the general population: a sugar shortage during World War II and thinness becoming the standard of beauty. Over the years, more artificial sweeteners were developed, while concerns over the use of these products also rose. For instance, Americans have been gaining weight and the incidence of diabetes has been increasing along with use of artificial sweeteners. Researchers wondered if this was simply coincidence or if the artificial sweeteners were in fact to blame.
Effects of Artificial Sweeteners
Several large studies dating back as far as the 1970s have found that long-term intake of artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, acesulfame potassium and sucralose, actually can lead to increases in weight. Interestingly, when you ingest artificial sweeteners in foods with calories, such as you might find in energy or diet bars, there is no increase in appetite compared with similar foods containing real sugar; however, when you consume sweet-tasting items with no calories, like diet sodas, you do become hungrier. And since tasting sweet flavors has been shown to increase your desire and dependence on sweet foods, artificial sweeteners can indeed make you crave more sweet things, so choosing diet sodas to try to beat a sweet craving is likely to have the opposite effect and make you even more likely to give in to the sweet treat you desire. Over time, the increased appetite and sweet cravings can lead to eating more and gaining weight.
Tricking your Body
Your brain responds to the taste of food by preparing the digestive system to process those foods properly, but artificial sweeteners do not activate brain and digestive processes the same way real sugar does, and this disconnect leads to increased appetite as your body cries out for some of the real thing. Some studies have found that the sweet taste prompts your brain to send out insulin to handle the incoming sugars. When you drink diet soda, however, there is no sugar for the insulin to process. This could lead to an increase in hunger, especially for sugary items, as your body seeks to use the insulin it released. Scientists continue to delve into the reasons that artificial sweeteners lead to hunger increases, as study results still are inconsistent.
The bottom line is that weight gain is associated with excessive calorie intake. Drinking diet soda itself won’t cause you to pack on pounds but can make your struggle to avoid sweets that much harder. If you must have your daily diet soda, try drinking it with a meal. Doing so will ensure that there is real food and sugars for your body to digest, instead of just an empty promise of calories. Better yet, break your diet soda habit altogether in favor of natural alternatives. Try flavoring plain water with natural choices like fruit or cucumber slices. If the bubbly tingle is what you love, try plain seltzer water or sparkling mineral water. Just be sure to read labels when choosing sparking waters, since most of the flavored options also have artificial sweeteners. You might find that the simple purity of water is far more thirst quenching and satisfying than those diet sodas you’ve been relying on.
- "Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine"; Gain Weight by “Going Diet”: Artificial Sweeteners and the Neurobiology of Sugar Cravings; Qing Yang; 2010
- "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition"; Non-nutritive Sweetener Consumption in Humans: Effects on Appetite and Food Intake and Their Putative Mechanisms; Richard D. Mattes and Barry M. Popkin; January 2009