Artificial Sweeteners May Hurt—not Help—Obesity Fight

Jul 07, 2004 03:42 PM EDT

A recent study has found that artificial sweeteners may disrupt the body's natural ability to "count" calories based on the sweetness of food.

The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, may explain why increasing numbers of people lack the natural ability to regulate food intake.

Begins in mouth

The study’s authors suggest that being able to automatically match caloric intake with caloric need depends on the body's ability to learn that the taste and feel of food suggests the appropriate caloric intake. According to the scientists, people learn that both sweet tastes and dense, viscous foods signal high calories. This learning process begins very early in life and perhaps without conscious awareness.

The body's natural ability to regulate food intake and body weight may be weakened when this natural relationship is impaired by artificial sweeteners.

Body is fooled by artificial sweeteners

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the consumption of artificially sweetened foods and low viscosity, high-calorie beverages. Incidence of overweight and obesity has also increased markedly during this period. Researchers hypothesize that experience with these foods interferes with the natural ability of the body to use sweet taste and viscosity to gauge caloric content of foods and beverages.

When artificial sweetener is substituted for real sugar the body learns it can no longer use its sense of taste to gauge calories. So, the body may be fooled into thinking a product sweetened with sugar has no calories and, therefore, people overeat.

Loss of ability contributes to weight gain

Scientists suggest that the loss of the body's ability to gauge caloric intake contributes to increased food intake and weight gain, especially when people do not count calories on their own. A similar dynamic is at work with foods' texture and thickness.

The number of Americans consuming sugar-free products increased from less than 70 million in 1987 to more than 160 million in 2000. During the same period, the consumption of regular soft drinks increased by more than 15 gallons per capita annually.


1. T.L. Davidson, S.E. Swithers, “A Pavlovian Approach to the Problem of Obesity,” International Journal of Obesity, July 2004: 28: 7.