Study: Artificial sweetener may disrupt body's ability to count calories

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Choosing a diet soft drink over a regular, sugar-packed beverage may not be the best way to fight obesity, according to new research from Purdue University. But the researchers said this doesn't mean you should grab a regularly sweetened soft drink instead.

Professor Terry Davidson and associate professor Susan Swithers, both in the Department of Psychological Sciences, found that artificial sweeteners may disrupt the body's natural ability to "count" calories based on foods' sweetness. This finding may explain why increasing numbers of people in the United States lack the natural ability to regulate food intake and body weight. The researchers also found that thick liquids aren't as satisfying - calorie for calorie - as are more solid foods.

Based on the research, Davidson and Swithers suggest paying more attention to calories consumed and engaging in regular exercise to battle the bulge.

The Purdue's researchers' study, "A Pavlovian Approach to the Problem of Obesity," appears in the July issue of International Journal of Obesity. Davidson and Swithers, members of the Ingestive Behavior Research Center at Purdue, suggest that being able to automatically match caloric intake with caloric need depends on the body's ability to learn that the taste and feel of food by the mouth suggests the appropriate caloric intake. Much as Pavlov's dogs learned that the sound of a bell signaled food, people learn that both sweet tastes and dense, viscous foods signal high calories. This learning process begins very early in life and perhaps without conscious awareness, according to the researchers.

"The body's natural ability to regulate food intake and body weight may be weakened when this natural relationship is impaired by artificial sweeteners," said Davidson, an expert in behavioral neuroscience. "Without thinking about it, the body learns that it can use food characteristics such as sweetness and viscosity to gauge its ca

Contact: Amy Patterson-Neubert,
Purdue University

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