Consuming diet soda and other foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners may increase food cravings in some people, a new study has found, with the effects most prominent in women and people with obesity.
The study, published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, came to the conclusion that the sucralose, the sweetener in diet sodas, can lead to an increased appetite after monitoring reward activity in the brain.
To determine the impact of artificial sweetener consumption, researchers recruited 74 study participants aged 18 to 35 years, all of who were weight-stable, and had no history of eating disorders or diabetes, to drink beverages sweetened with sucralose as well as drinks sweetened with sugar.
The participants’ responses were then analysed using functional MRI brain images, blood samples to measure blood sugar and metabolic hormones, and by how much they ate at a buffet.
According to study author Kathleen Page, a physician specialising in obesity at the University of Southern California, the experiment “found that females and people with obesity had greater brain reward activity,” after consuming the artificial sweetener, NPR reported.
Greater brain reward activity means that those in these groups are tricked into thinking they are hungry after consuming beverages sweetened with the artificial sweetener, and in turn, may consume more calories.
“For these groups, drinking artificially sweetened drinks may trick the brain into feeling hungry, which may in turn result in more calories being consumed,” Dr Page said in the press release, according to WebMD.
Interestingly, the study found that males and those of healthy weight did not have an increased hunger response and were not affected by the ingestion of artificial sweetener the same way.
The researchers also noted that their findings follow previous conflicting studies about artificial sweeteners, with some studies reporting benefits when relying on the sugar alternatives, while others have linked the sweeteners with weight gain or diabetes.
“Our findings indicate that female individuals and those with obesity, and especially female individuals with obesity, might be particularly sensitive to greater neural responsivity elicited by sucralose compared with sucrose consumption,” the study concluded, adding that the findings highlight “the need to consider individual biological factors in research studies and potentially in dietary recommendations regarding the use and efficacy of [artificial sweeteners] for body weight management”.