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Like sugar, artificial sweeteners tickle taste receptors, which fire reward signals in your brain that drive you toward sweet foods. But the fake stuff may stoke these cravings even more than sugar.
In a USDA study, adults were given either a beverage sweetened with sugar or one with the artificial sweetener sucralose with their lunch. Hours later, participants could play a slot machine–like game for either sweet or savory snacks. The people in the sucralose group worked harder to earn sweet treats than those who had consumed regular sugar (they played equally for sweet and savory snacks). When the brain detects sweetness but doesn't get the calories it expects, it seems to respond by seeking out those calories later, making sweet cravings stronger.
Opting for artificial sweeteners to lose weight? It may backfire. A review of aspartame and sucralose studies concluded that calorie-free sweeteners did not lead to weight loss. If anything, they found the opposite—fake sugars were associated with increased weight and waist circumference. New research looking at the cells of obese humans suggests that sucralose may promote fat accumulation. And other studies have found that no-cal sweeteners can damage your microbiome and insulin function.
What about natural alternatives like stevia and monk fruit? "Preliminary studies suggest that they might be better, but there's just not enough long-term data," says David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. "The jury is still out."
Reset your taste buds. Research shows that cutting out added sweeteners—real or fake—for just two weeks makes even mildly sweet foods taste much sweeter. Consider your sweet tooth conquered!