Avoid the artificial-sweetener mind games

When you eat or drink something sweet, your body and your brain immediately want more. It’s like a drug, really. And in my book, artificial sweeteners are worse than plain table sugar. Far worse. They lull you into thinking you’re doing something smart and healthy by avoiding extra calories. But it’s all a mind game, according to research from a behavioral neuroscientist at Purdue University.

Men and women who consume artificial sweeteners actually have abnormal brain responses. In fact, imaging studies show that natural cane sugar activates areas of the mid-brain that release dopamine, that “feel-good” neurotransmitter. So you feel “satisfied” or even a little “happy” after eating or drinking something with real sugar.

But artificial sweeteners don’t activate the mid-brain to release dopamine. And you never get that “satisfied” payoff. So, your body goes in search of something else sweet to get that gratification.

Plus, after you eat a regular meal, your body should release hormones and markers of blood sugar balance. But previous clinical studies found that your body doesn’t release them after consuming artificial sweeteners.

And this makes perfect sense…

You see, it turns out men and women who regularly consume artificial sugar run a greater risk of developing health problems. Including excessive weight gain and obesity. They also run a greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome, Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

And now we know why this happens.

Consuming artificial sugar makes you crave more real sugar. And it makes you feel hungry all the time.

According to Dr. Frank Hu of Harvard’s School of Public Health, “the intense sweetness of artificially-sweetened beverages may condition people towards greater preference for sweets and may enhance appetite.”

Also, as I mentioned earlier, many men and women think they’re doing something smart and healthy by drinking a zero-calorie beverages. And they use this to justify eating other high-calorie foods. They think, I’ll eat fried chicken for lunch, but at least I drank a diet soda, so that’s not too bad. Now we know those empty calories send you on a quest for more calories. And sweeter calories.

In fact, I partly blame artificial sweeteners for our country’s addiction to sugar. You see, artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame are up to 700 times sweeter than regular table sugar. And this plays games with your mind.

My friend and colleague, Walt Willett, Chair of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health seems to agree. He says that, “regular consumption of artificial sweeteners is not optimal as these leave us conditioned to a high level of sweetness, which can distort our food choices.”

You’re much better off sticking with plain water, unsweetened coffee or tea, and Red Joe. They won’t play tricks with your brain. And they won’t create that craving for something sweet.


1.  “Artificial sweeteners produce the counterintuitive effect of inducing metabolic derangements,” Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism, published on-line, 7/10/2013

2. “’Caution’ Warranted if Consuming Artificial Sweeteners,” Medscape (www.medscape.com) 7/10/2013