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Neurobiology of Artificial Sweeteners

The disconnect between sweetness sensations coming from our tongue and the lack of a caloric feedback loop in the gut may result in overeating.

December 6, 2012 |
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Other than “overcompensation for expected caloric reduction,” there are two other ways that the most nontoxic noncaloric sweetener could still be harmful if we're not careful. When our brain registers the sensation of sweetness on our tongue, it has millions of years of evolution telling it we just put a piece of fruit in our mouth and so your brain yells eat it, and boosts our appetite, because the only naturally sweet things on the planet are super healthy, right? Fruit, sweet potatoes, beets. You drink a can of diet soda and your brain thinks you just stumbled across a wild blueberry bush or something, and sends urgent signals to consume consume, consume, before someone else gets wind of your bounty. Now your body’s not stupid. It knows if you eat too many calories of any food you might get fat and not be able outrun run some saber tooth tiger so there are signals that come up from our gut when we absorb calories into our system telling us eventually to slow down, we’ve had enough. But with noncaloric sweeteners we have a disconnect. We just have the appetite boosting effects on our brain of the sweet nerve sensations from our tongue, but without the appetite suppressing effects of the calories coming into our system and so this revved up appetite may lead us to overeat more than we would have without the diet soda and end up gaining weight.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ashley Rhinehart, RN.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

The overcompensation mechanism was explored in yesterday’s NutritionFacts.org video-of-the-day How Diet Soda Could Make Us Gain Weight. Note that both can be overcome if one is eating consciously. The same goes for the final potential mechanism in tomorrow's video-of-the-day Unsweetening the Diet.

For some context, please check out my associated blog post: How to Gain Weight on Diet Soda

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • HemoDynamic, M.D.

    The sweet facts on your hunger drive.

  • Jane

    Hi Dr Greger, does this research apply to sweetners such as stevia and xylitol?

  • R Ian Flett

    This is an important subject. Addiction to sweetness is a much underrated modern condition that has been severely exploited by the food industry. It does not really matter in this respect what the type of sweetener it is; the exaggerated digestive signal is sufficiently problematic.

    There are genetic differences involved. My genes show that I’m a super taster of sweet with a childhood aversion to bitterness. It’s interesting that the genetic aversion to bitterness wears off over time and actually becomes a preference in mid life. However, my sweetness preference under the influence of exploitative food technology became a teenage addiction that took decades to get under control and particularly at the expense of my dental health.

    The fact that sugar is antibacterial and used as a preservative for product shelf life is an additional factor. Excess sugar as empty calories and artificial sweeteners with zero calories, both do enormous damage, not to mention the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup. They badly distort our evolutionary instincts, yet we continue to reward our children with ‘sweeties’. It’s a cultural disaster.

  • Lauren

    Is this an argument to stop chewing gum? I chew a lot of gum because it prevents me from snacking, but maybe I’m actually doing my body a disservice and consuming more calories overall because of the artificial sweetness of the gum.

  • Bonnie Gilbert

    I am addicted to sugar., and between that, menopause, osteoporosis and dental disease I’m doomed. My son is a type 1 diabetic, where can he find ERYTHITOL?