Photo Credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya
Many people are under the impression that natural and artificial low-calorie sweeteners are a better option when it comes to weight loss than plain sugar.
And in a sense, they might be right. But it’s unfortunately not that simple. Low-calorie sweeteners (LCS) might actually make weight loss harder, or even impossible.
Let me tell you why!
Low-Calorie Sweeteners and Weight Loss
If you look at sweeteners such as stevia, monk fruit, or aspartame from a calorie perspective, yes, they might be helpful for weight loss because they contain little to no calories compared to table sugar, syrup, or honey.
These low-calorie sweeteners add pretty much zero calories to whatever food you are eating or beverage you are drinking, as opposed to sugar or syrup, which will add about 4 calories per gram. One teaspoon of real sugar is 16 calories, it's about 156 calories per 12-oz can of coke.
Yet, after having worked with many people on weight loss over the past 6 years, I can tell you that even if weight loss does have a lot to do with calories - indeed, one can’t lose weight without creating a calorie deficit in their body - calories are just one small part of the weight loss puzzle.
Cravings, emotional eating, and food addiction are too often what gets in the way of creating a calorie deficit. And this is where low-calorie sweeteners can be real "saboteurs".
Low-Calorie Sweeteners and Cravings
Cravings for sweets and processed foods, compulsive eating, bingeing, stress eating, and food addiction are all very much linked to the reward pathway in our brain. This is a pathway that involves the release of dopamine when eating or drinking something sweet, and as a result makes us feel good when we eat foods that are rich in sugar, fat, and salt, and are often referred to as highly palatable foods.
Unfortunately, research has shown that it is not just sugar molecules that are associated with overloading our reward pathway, causing food addiction and obsession with food. It is also the sweetness we taste, even if there are no sugar molecules associated with it.
So, if you regularly eat sweet foods and drink sweet beverages that don’t contain any real sugar, your brain will still react somewhat the same way it would if you were eating sugar, honey, or maple syrup. Consequently, your brain will do everything it can to make you eat more of that food and drink more of that beverage in order to trigger the reward pathway again and make you experience pleasure as a result.
Sugar is Addictive... so is Sweetness!
As a result, even if these sweeteners don’t provide extra calories and don’t make you gain weight directly, they will make you want to eat more and more rewarding foods. These foods are often foods that are sweet and contain a large amount of fat, salt, and calories. Not to mention the lack of fiber and nutrients!
Many of my clients have actually asked me what my take is on low-calorie sweetening options. I am not a dietician, I am not a scientist, I am not a doctor… but luckily, I can share resources to inform them and help them create their own educated opinion on the topic.
Today, I would like to share with you this very interesting presentation from Dr. Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist and a pioneer in the field of food addiction. Her presentation is about 45-minute long, but if you only want to hear about the artificial sweetener part, you can jump to minute 35:05 or click the button below.
Alternatively, you can also watch this super short video from her blog, it’s a fun summary of her research on how sugar affects the reward system in our brain and it can easily be shared with younger people if you have children who are interested.
How Do We Break The Sugar/Craving Cycle?
What I have been successfully working on with most of my clients who want to establish healthier eating habits for weight loss, diabetes prevention, or for other health reasons, is helping them lower their need for sweetness. This means that highly processed and unhealthy foods that they currently find perfectly sweet will become overly sweet for them down the road and won't be as appealing. At the same time, foods that don’t taste very sweet to them currently, will start to taste much sweeter and will feel like treats after a while. As a result, they will start craving healthier foods and will feel content from eating foods that are whole and healthy rather than super sweet foods that are highly processed and loaded with fat, salt, harmful additives, and calories.
If you would like to know more about the approach I use to support my clients along this journey, feel free to reach out and we can chat. If you are committed to making profound changes in your lifestyle, so that you can nourish your body and mind in a healthier, yet enjoyable way, you can request a free Discovery Consultation, so that we can discuss together what the best path forward might be for you to reach your goals.
Don’t hesitate, let me know if I can help. A healthy relationship with food could be a game changer, not just for you, but also for your loved ones!