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Eating ‘lite’ food can lead to weight gain11 January 2014, by Alexandra Gowling
Research at Maastricht University has revealed that while foods containing artificial sweeteners do not have a direct negative impact on our health, there is an overlooked psychological effect that is less benign.
According to PhD candidate Karolien van den Akker, they can negatively influence our eating and cause us to consume more.
Use of artificial sweeteners
Most studies on artificial sweeteners, which include substances like aspartame and saccharine, have shown that consuming a "normal" amount of sweetener does not damage our health.
Rather, it was thought that products with sweeteners, often called "diet" or "lite" versions, were a safe and easy way to lose weight, as the products themselves had little to no calories.
What happens when we eat sweeteners?
According to this new research, however, artificial sweeteners contain substances that can seriously disrupt and confuse our bodies.
As soon as our tongue tastes something sweet, it sends a message to the brain that sugar (i.e. energy) is coming. The brain then tells the body to produce extra insulin in preparation.
With artificial sweeteners, however, that energy never arrives, something which the body does not realise. It continues as normal and the extra insulin acts to remove glucose from the blood.
Removing too much glucose, however, leads to low blood sugar levels, which we experience as hunger or cravings, encouraging us to eat more to satisfy them.
This process of false alarms and low blood sugar can lead to excess food intake, unbalanced eating habits and quite probably weight gain.
Dangers of sugar
The supposed benefit of artificial sweeteners was that they allowed us to eat sweet things without the consequent weight gain. Clearly, that is not necessarily the case.
Yet going back to sugar will certainly not help those who are struggling to maintain a healthy weight.
Excess sugar consumption is a problem in the Netherlands, as it is in much of the rest of the world, with experts considering it a prime force behind the current obesity epidemic.
The head of Amsterdam’s health service wrote an open letter last year calling sugar a dangerous drug and suggesting it be regulated just like tobacco and alcohol.
"The use of sugar should be discouraged and users should be made aware of the dangers," he wrote.
Abroad, an action group has just been launched by doctors from the UK, US and Canada, calling for a 20 to 30 per cent decrease in the use of sugar in products over three to five years.
A reduction like this would cause the average person to eat 100 calories less per day, even more in someone who consumes a lot of sugar, which the doctors believe will halt the obesity epidemic.
The group hopes to emulate the action on salt levels that has been occurring in the UK since the 1990s, which has reduced the salt in foods on supermarket shelves from between 25 to 40 per cent, resulting in a drop of 15 per cent in overall salt intake and at least 6.000 fewer strokes between 2001 and 2011.
The best approach to our health, however, may well lie in all of us training our tastebuds away from super sweet food, whether the taste is real or artificial.