Why Artificial Sweeteners May Lead To Weight Gain
Although they add no carbohydrate or calories to our food, research indicates that artificial sweeteners may contribute to weight gain.
These findings are refuted by the American Beverage Association, and the updated U.S. dietary guidelines state that artificial sweeteners, if used in moderation, are okay. Yet, the dietary guidelines also state that artificial sweeteners should not be advocated for weight loss.
The dietary guidelines, plus some scientists, doctors, and nutritionists recommend caution with artificial sweeteners because they play a trick on our body, one that disrupts the way we process food.
To make sense of this trick, we must first understand how the body reacts to regular sugar:
- When we eat sugary foods, the brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that stimulates our brain’s pleasure center.
- The sugar we consume also provides calories; our body keeps track of the calories that we take in.
- When we’ve ingested enough calories to satisfy our body’s needs, a hormone called leptin is released. Leptin signals our brain that we’ve eaten enough, and “are satisfied.”
The body responds in a different way to artificial sweeteners:
- Just like with regular sugar, our brain releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine when we enjoy food sweetened artificially.
- Though there are no calories in artificial sweeteners for the body to keep tabs on, it still expects those calories to show up.
- Without calories, the release of leptin - our “I’m satisfied” messenger - is weak or absent. Since there is nothing to deactivate the brain’s pleasure center, we continue to eat.
So, our body is deceived by artificial sweeteners into looking for hunger relieving calories that never arrive, and it simultaneously enjoys artificially stimulated pleasure that is never satisfied. This can lead to cravings for carbohydrates, and unsatisfied cravings often turn into weight gain.
A Case for Caution
It is this disruption of our appetite control system that prompts some scientists to suggest artificial sweeteners contribute to obesity, instead of preventing it.
At the very least, there is ample evidence about the possible harmful effects of artificial sweeteners to merit moderate consumption—as the U.S. dietary guidelines recommend. However, each of us needs to weigh the data, maybe talk with a doctor or dietitian, and then decide for ourselves how much, if any, artificial sweetener we will consume.