Diet drinks can make food cravings worse and losing weight more difficult – expert warning
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A new study published by JAMA Network Open has added to previous evidence that drinks which contain sucralose may stimulate the appetite in certain people. The new study has also given some further insight into why that is the case.
Katie Page, a doctor specialising in obesity at the University of Southern California explained that after consuming this form of artificial sweetener “we found that females and people with obesity had greater brain reward activity.”
The research also highlighted that both groups had a reduction in the effectiveness of the hormone that acts as a natural appetite suppressor. After consuming drinks that contained sucralose, compared with drinking drinks sweetened with sugar, they tended to eat a higher number of calories.
The study also found that people of a healthy weight and males did not show an increase in brain reward activity or hunger after consuming drinks containing sweeteners, which suggests that they are not affected in the same way.
Katie said: “I think what was most surprising was the impact of body weight and biological sex.
“They were very important factors in the way that the brain responded to the artificial sweetener.”
When researching the effects of diet drinks, Katie and her team measured the response in three ways.
They used functional MRI brain images of each of the study’s 74 participants to determine which parts of the brain linked to appetite and cravings were activated.
They also used samples of blood to determine blood sugar levels and metabolic hormones; two factors that can drive hunger.
The team also tracked the amount study participants ate at a buffet which was offered at the end of each study session.
The aim of the study was to determine whether diet drinks would help or hinder dieting efforts and make losing weight easier or more difficult. While some studies have shown certain benefits to diet drinks, longer term research has found a link between consumption of diet drinks and an increase in weight.
Behavioural scientist from Purdue University, Susan Swithers, was not involved in the study but has reviewed the findings and has explained that there are a number of complex ways artificial sweeteners may impact metabolism and weight.
She said: “These results are consistent with patterns that we’ve actually seen in my lab in [animal] studies.”
It has been suggested that it may not be the sucralose itself creating the impact; instead the sweetener may confuse the body by making it think sugar is on the way, and thus causing cravings and feelings of hunger to occur.
She explained: “You are supposed to get sugar after something tastes sweet. Your body has been conditioned to that.”
The research suggests that drinking a diet drink may create a disconnect because the body never receives any sugar, which may damage the body’s anticipatory responses and impact its ability to metabolise sugar.
What this could mean is that “when you get the sweet taste without the sugar, that changes how you respond to sugar the next time, because you don’t know whether it’s coming or not,” Swithers says.
In an interesting study, Swithers’ own research has shown that when an animal that normally consumes artificial sweetener is given real sugar, their blood sugar levels rise exponentially, far higher than animals who do not consume artificial sweeteners.
According to Swithers, what this could mean is that “when you get the sweet taste without the sugar, that changes how you respond to sugar the next time, because you don’t know whether it’s coming or not.”
She said: “It’s a small effect, but over time this could contribute to potentially significant consequences.”
What this shows is that if the same thing happens when people consume diet drinks, it may add to the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
The new research suggests that people who are overweight or obese, might want to try avoiding diet drinks for a few weeks to see if it helps to reduce cravings for high-calorie food groups.
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