Weight loss: Diet drinks could be ‘tricking’ your brain into eating

Rapid weight loss 'becoming much more accepted' says Mosley

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When it comes to losing weight, people tend to opt for sugar-free foods and drink but for the latter, there are conflicting studies about diet drinks helping weight loss. Despite their low calorie status, latest research has found that artificial sweeteners may not be as helpful for shedding the pounds as some may assume.

During a new study from Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, researchers looked specifically at the artificial sweetener sucralose, also known as Splenda, which is FDA approved.

They found that the non-nutritive sweetener (NNS), which is an ingredient in many diet drinks, actually “increased food cravings in women and people with obesity”.

This was compared with drinks containing sucrose, which is a natural sugar.

The study’s senior investigator Kathleen Page, M.D, explained that after their volunteers consumed the artificial sweetener, these two groups “had greater brain reward activity”.

They also had a reduction in the hormone that inhibits appetite, eating more food after they consumed drinks with sucralose, compared with after regular sugar-sweetened drinks.

Males and people of healthy weight who participated in the experiment, were found to have not had an increase in either brain reward activity or hunger response, and the researchers concluded that they’re not affected in the same way.

“There is controversy surrounding the use of artificial sweeteners because a lot of people are using them for weight loss,” Professor Page added.

“While some studies suggest they may be helpful, others show they may be contributing to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.

“Our study looked at different population groups to tease out some of the reasons behind those conflicting results.”

The team used three methods to conclude their research, using functional MRI brain images of the 74 study participants to document the activation of parts of the brain linked to appetite and cravings.

They also used blood samples to measure blood sugar and metabolic hormones that can drive hunger, and they tracked how much food participants consumed at the end of each study session.

Behavioural scientist at Purdue University Susan Swithers, reviewed the findings and believes the body is being “tricked” into thinking it was going to be consuming sugar.

“One hypothesis is that it’s not the artificial sweetener itself that has a direct effect on the body,” she explained.

“The idea is that artificial sweeteners may confuse the body by tricking it into thinking sugar is coming.

“You are supposed to get sugar after something tastes sweet. Your body has been conditioned to that.

“But diet soda may lead to a disconnect.”

Professor Swithers continued: “The sugar never arrives, and this may blunt the body’s anticipatory responses and throw off the ability to efficiently metabolise sugar that’s consumed later.

“This could mean 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.

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