Shun Artificial Sweeteners and Unsweeten Your Diet

Drink can meas tape

Many clients I see have a can of diet fizzy drink a day.  Or a diet yogurt, or have ‘sugar free' and ‘no added sugar’ drinks and squashes as they think they are better for them.  Instinctively I’m not keen on artificial sweeteners; they aren’t natural and encourage the taste for sweetness.  Studies show that sweet taste (artificial or not) increases human appetite.

Did you know scientists have found a link between diet fizzy drink consumption and obesity and type 2 diabetes?  This association doesn’t mean that diet drink consumption causes obesity or diabetes, that hasn’t been proven but there is a relationship.  It could be that as people gain weight this causes them to choose the diet version, yet some studies are adjusting for this and still coming out with a link (1).  Another explanation is the ‘permission’ effect.  You’ve been good (had a diet drink) so you CAN have crisps with your sandwich or cake at the office.  It’s like rewarding yourself for going to the gym by having a post-workout treat.   Typically you overestimate the benefit of the ‘good’ behaviour and underestimate the treat.

What I find interesting is that studies show (with MRI scans) that in regular sweetener consumers the brain changes in a way that could influence eating behaviour.    Artificial sweeteners do not activate the brain’s food reward pathways in the same way as sugar.   The sweet taste without the expected calories confuses the brain, and may lead to an increase in appetite and overeating to compensate.  And, the effect seems worse the more sweeteners you consume.

Also artificial sweeteners, precisely because they are sweet, can make us crave sugar.  If you have a lot of sweetness in your diet (artificial or not) it leads you to prefer sweeter foods (2).  I don’t recommend sugar-sweetened drinks as an alternative as they too are linked with obesity and diabetes.  So what to drink?  Water (of course), milk (organic please) and dairy alternatives like coconut water, diluted fruit juice (half water half juice) or vegetable juices.  I’m a fan of herbal teas, there is such a variety that anyone can find something they like, other cultures have fabulous teas like Thai lemongrass or ginger tea and Moroccan mint tea.  My personal favourite is naturally decaffeinated South African redbush tea.

As it has been shown that a gradual reduction of salt leads to preference for lower salt foods (3) I suggest people reduce the sugar in their diet gradually but permanently and then they get used to less sweet foods.  Read labels and become aware of sugars in food (not just as sugar but ingredients ending in ‘ose’ like glucose and fructose along with syrups, malt), and also look out for the common sweeteners listed as aspartame, acesulfame-K, saccharin and sucralose.  First become aware of where you eat or drink sugar (& sweeteners) and then make changes one at a time.  Once you have sorted out your drinks, take a look at breakfast cereals and yogurts that you eat.  I think I’m going to try a sugar-free day; I’ll let you know how I get on.


1.  Fowler SP, Williams K, Resendez RG, Hunt KJ, Hazuda HP, Stern MP. Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long-term weight gain. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.). 2008;16:1894-1900.

2.  Liem DG, de Graaf C. Sweet and sour preferences in young children and adults: role of repeated exposure. Physiol Behav. 2004;83:421-9.

3.  Bertino M, Beauchamp GK, Engelman K.  Long-term reduction in dietary sodium alters the taste of salt. Am J Clin Nutr. 1982;36:1134-44.

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