Choosing diet drinks and artificial sweeteners instead of high-calorie treats may increase your craving for sugar, a study has found.
It is because sugar subsitutes tickle the tastebuds, but can’t fool the brain.
The pleasure we get from sweet treats is the result of a chemical called dopamine, which is released in the brain when sugar is consumed and is linked to a feeling of reward.
Artificial sweeteners and other low-calorie options do not cause the same reaction, leaving dieters with their craving – and making them far more likely to binge on sugar later on.
‘[Our discovery] implies that humans frequently ingesting low-calorie sweet products in a state of hunger may be more likely to ‘relapse’ and choose high-calorie alternatives in the future,’ said Professor Ivan de Araujo, who led the study at Yale University’s School of Medicine.
Rather than starve yourself of sugar, he said, it is better to consume very small amounts, tricking the brain into producing a pleasure response.
The steady release of dopamine will prevent cravings from building up.
Professor de Araujo added: ‘The results suggest that a “happy medium” could be a solution, combining sweeteners with minimal amounts of sugar so that energy metabolism doesn’t drop, while caloric intake is kept to a minimum.’
Scientists suggest the findings may explain why obesity levels have rocketed despite the widespread introduction of diet drinks and snacks.
Professor Ivan de Araujo said: “The consumption of high-calorie beverages is a major contributor to weight gain and obesity, even after the introduction of artificial sweeteners to the market.
‘We believe that the discovery is important because it shows how physiological states may impact on our choices between sugars and sweeteners.
‘Specifically, it implies that humans frequently ingesting low-calorie sweet products in a state of hunger or exhaustion may be more likely to ‘relapse’ and choose high calorie alternatives in the future.
‘The results suggest that a ‘happy medium’ could be a solution; combining sweeteners with minimal amounts of sugar so that energy metabolism doesn’t drop, while caloric intake is kept to a minimum.”
The research was performed in mice, using a combination of behavioural testing involving sweeteners and sugars, whilst measuring chemical responses in brain circuits for reward.
Professor de Araujo said: ‘According to the data, when we apply substances that interfere with a critical step of the ‘sugar-to-energy pathway’, the interest of the animals in consuming artificial sweetener decreases significantly, along with important reductions in brain dopamine levels.
‘This is verified by the fact that when hungry mice – who thus have low sugar levels – are given a choice between artificial sweeteners and sugars, they are more likely to completely switch their preferences towards sugars even if the artificial sweetener is much sweeter than the sugar solution.’
Further research is planned to identify the associated receptors and pathways in the brain after the study established dopamine cells were critical in sugar or sweetener choice.