Are diet foods and zero-calorie sweeteners setting us up to fail?

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Think you're saving yourself extra calories by going the artificial sweetener route? New research suggests you're just setting yourself up to fail.

That's the conclusion of a new study out of Yale University which found that eating low-calorie sweetened products may actually sabotage efforts to reduce calorie intake, by leading people to reach for higher calorie alternatives later on.

Or, as scientists put it, despite good intentions, the brain can't be fooled by artificial sweeteners.

That's because in their animal research, scientists observed that a specific physiological signal that regulates dopamine levels -- the feel-good chemical that works with the reward center in the brain -- only arose when sugar was broken down into a form that could be used as fuel and energy for the body.

For the study, scientists performed behavioral testing involving sweeteners and sugars and measured chemical responses in the brain circuit.

"According to the data, when we apply substances that interfere with a critical step of the ‘sugar-to-energy pathway,' the interest of the animals in consuming artificial sweetener decreases significantly,

along with important reductions in brain dopamine levels," explained lead author Ivan de Araujo in the Journal of Physiology.

In an opinion article published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism this summer, experts also pointed to similar studies which showed that consuming zero-calorie sweeteners altered the brain's pleasure center and dampened physiological responses to sweet taste, causing mice to overindulge in calorie-dense foods later.

Artificial sweeteners have also been associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The overall lesson from the study? Limit the intake of artificial sweeteners, stick to water and if the craving is too strong, opt for fiber-rich, unprocessed natural fruit juices or smoothies.


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