Humans are hard-wired to like sweet-tasting foods and beverages. The average American consumes more than 80 grams (20 teaspoons) of sugar every day, far exceeding the World Health Organization recommendations (24 grams/day for women and 36 grams/day for men). As more people recognize the negative consequences of sugar, many look to artificial sweeteners to reduce their sugar intake without giving up their favorite sweet foods. At first glance, this seems logical, since artificial sweeteners provide the sweet taste with none of the calories, but research now shows that artificial sweeteners are not as benign as they were once thought to be: they play a role in several negative health outcomes.
The Problem with Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners confuse the brain’s appetite center. Relatively speaking, artificial sweeteners are new to the human diet. For thousands of years, a sweet taste meant the body was about to receive energy in the form of calories. With the introduction of artificial sweeteners, the body was faced with a new dilemma. Artificial sweeteners and sugar both activate the same reward center of the brain, but without the calories, artificial sweeteners trick the brain into thinking its energy needs have been met. This discrepancy can increase appetite and trigger cravings. Recent research supports this idea. In one study, fruit flies consumed up to 30% more food after they were fed a diet with sucralose (Splenda). Another study found that rats fed yogurt sweetened with the artificial sweetener saccharin ate more calories and gained more body fat compared to rats fed yogurt sweetened with glucose. Combined, these studies indicate that artificial sweeteners impair our innate human ability to eat when hungry and stop when full.
Because artificial sweeteners contain few calories, many people mistakenly believe that they have no drawbacks. This is not true: artificial sweeteners displace real food in the diet and are linked to cravings for sweets, higher levels of harmful gut bacteria, glucose intolerance, weight gain, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
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