Appetite satiety hunger

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The potent attraction of humans to sweet tasting foods and beverages has given rise to the notion that the appetite for sweet products may stimulate overeating and induce weight gain over the long term. Furthermore, it has been suggested that low calorie sweeteners enhance the natural appetite for sweetness, exacerbate the liking for sweet products of all kinds, and prevent consumers from managing their response to sweetness.

However, the existing studies, using widely differing methodologies in various types of consumers (men, women, lean, obese, never obese, formerly obese), reach largely consistent conclusions: the short term or long term use of low calorie sweeteners shows no consistent association with a heightened appetite for sugar or sweet products. In fact, in many instances, the use of low calorie sweeteners is associated with a decreased intake of sweet tasting substances.

Low calorie sweeteners do not affect appetite or hunger

The notion that low calorie sweeteners might enhance appetite and intake was formulated in the 1980’s by John Blundell and his team. The theory supported that the experience of sweetness in the absence of calories might weaken the natural sweetness-energy relationship and consequently disrupt appetite control mechanisms. However, these early results have not been replicated by numerous later works that failed to show any stimulatory effect of low calorie sweeteners on appetite and energy intake. Blundell himself, in the context of the controversy, made it clear that he never claimed that low calorie sweeteners per se, and particularly aspartame, stimulated appetite and intake.

A recently published consensus statement by leading experts concludes that low calorie sweeteners such as aspartame, acesulfame K, saccharin, sucralose and stevia (or steviol glycodises) do not increase appetite or effect satiety, and that they can enhance weight loss by replacing sugar (Gibson et al, 2014).

Read more about the consensus statement by Gibson et al

What the science shows

Human studies suggest that low calorie sweeteners neither promote nor suppress appetite. A recent review by Bellisle (2015) examined the specific effects of low calorie sweeteners use on appetite for sweet products in relation to weight management and concluded that the short or long-term use of low calorie sweeteners showed no consistent association with a heightened appetite for sugar or sweet products. In fact, in many instances, the use of low calorie sweeteners was associated with a lower intake of sweet tasting substances. This suggests that low calorie sweeteners may help to satisfy a desire for sweetness and do not encourage a “sweet tooth”.

Several studies have also examined the acute effects of LCS on appetite, hunger and food intake and concluded that replacing sugar with LCS in foods or drinks does not increase food intake or hunger in children (Anderson et al, 1989; Birch et al, 1989) or in normal-weight (Rolls et al 1989; Mattes, 1990, Drewnowski et al, 1994; Anton et al, 2010; Bryant et al 2014) or overweight individuals (Fricker et al, 1993; Drewnowski et al, 1994; Anton et al, 2010).

The question of appetite for sweetness was also addressed in long-term randomized controlled trials in both adults and children. In a weight loss six-month intervention by Piernas et al (2013), obese adults (n=104) were asked to replace daily intake of sugar-sweetened beverages with low calorie sweetened beverages, while another group (n=106) was asked to replace sugar-sweetened beverages with water. The hypothesis tested was that consumption of low calorie sweeteners in beverages would enhance the consumption of sweet-tasting foods and beverages. The dietary changes recorded in the intervention group did not support the hypothesis, however. Indeed, the patients exposed to a high level of intake of low calorie sweetened beverages for six months significantly reduced their sugar intake during the intervention. In this RCT, spontaneous intake data brings no support to the notion that low calorie sweeteners in beverages exert an enhancing effect on appetite in general, and on appetite for sweet-tasting products in particular. Actually the results suggested a broader suppression of appetite for sweetness in participants with a high daily intake of diet drinks than in the water group.

The DRINK study (De Ruyter et al, 2013) is another randomised trial carried out in school children. During an 18-month intervention 641 mostly normal weight children were randomized into two groups. One group received and drank a sugar-containing beverage (104 kcal) every day, whereas the control group received and drank a placebo drink (sweetened with LCS). Over the intervention phase, no “compensation” appeared for the absence of energy from the low calorie sweetened drink, and experienced satiety was the same in both groups. Furthermore, replacing sugar-containing beverages with sugar-free beverages reduced weight gain and body fat accumulation over the intervention period. Again this RCT in children shows no support for the hypothesis that LCS might exacerbate liking or wanting of sweet tasting products.

Furthermore, a study by Antenucci et al. published in 2015 looked at the impact low calorie sweeteners had on the parts of the brain that respond to sweetness. The results of the study show that low calorie sweeteners did not over-stimulate these parts of the brain, or produce enhanced sweet sensations. These data do not support the view that low calorie sweeteners hijack or overstimulate sweet receptors to produce elevated sweet sensations.


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