Do low-calorie sweetened beverages help to control food cravings?

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Outcomes of two new human experimental studies

Highlights:

  • Studies found that low calorie sweetened beverages may help some people to eat less and feel more in control and less guilty about their eating.
  • Study participants who were frequent consumers of low calorie sweeteners consumed fewer calories when low calorie sweetened beverages were available compared to unavailable.
  • Meal enjoyment was reported as being higher when low calorie sweetened beverages were available.

A new study by the University of Liverpool that was published in the scientific journal Physiology & Behavior investigated in two experiments how the consumption of low calorie sweetened beverages may affect food cravings and the desire for sweet taste and, hence, food intake in adults (Maloney et al, 2019). The current studies suggest that low calorie sweetened beverages may benefit some individuals in reducing their caloric intake whilst helping to satisfy their desire for sweetness. In contrast, the notion that low calorie sweeteners may encourage a preference for sweet-tasting foods and thus promote overeating and weight gain was not confirmed by the study results.

First experiment: Frequent consumers of low calorie sweetened beverages showed better control of food cravings

In the first experiment, 120 frequent and non-consumers of low calorie sweeteners were exposed to either their preferred chocolate bar to induce craving or to a non-food item (control group), and were then allowed to eat as much as they wanted (ad libitum food intake) from sweet and savoury snacks and beverages including low calorie sweetened drinks.

As expected, calorie intake was higher for participants in the chocolate-craving group compared to the control group, but this result was only for participants who were non-habitual consumers of low calorie beverages. For frequent consumers of low calorie sweetened beverages there was no difference between the chocolate-craving and control groups, which suggests that frequent consumers were somehow protected from craving-induced increases in food consumption.

Second experiment: Calorie intake was lower when low calorie sweetened beverages were available

Following the findings of the first experiment, the researchers ran another study using the same chocolate craving stimulus in participants who were frequent low calorie sweetened beverage consumers. The 172 participants of this study were randomly allocated either to the craving or control condition, and the low calorie sweetener available or unavailable condition, generating four independent groups.

While this second study did not replicate the results of the first study regarding protecting against food cravings, however, frequent consumers ingested fewer calories overall when low calorie sweetened beverages were available compared to unavailable. Furthermore, another interesting finding was that participants felt more control over their food intake, greater meal enjoyment and less guilty over eating, when low calorie sweetened beverages were available.

Take-home message

Overall, the study suggests that low calorie sweetened beverages may help some people to eat less by controlling food cravings and also help them feel greater meal enjoyment, more in control and less guilty about their eating. By doing so, low calorie sweeteners can help some individuals while dieting in adhering to their weight-management plan while maintaining a greater palatability of, and pleasure from, the diet. The authors conclude in their publication that, “these findings provide novel insight into the psychological mechanisms underpinning frequent consumption of low calorie sweetened beverages in the context of their positive effect on weight, as has been shown elsewhere in the literature” (Rogers et al, 2016).

For more information about the studies’ methods and results, you may also watch the presentation by Dr Charlotte Hardman, University of Liverpool, UK at the ISA Conference 2018 by clicking here or her interview below on how perception of low calorie sweeteners can influence energy and food intake.

  1. Maloney NG, Christiansen P, Harrold JA, Halford JCG, Hardman CA. Do low-calorie sweetened beverages help to control food cravings? Two experimental studies. Physiology & Behavior 2019; 208: 112500
  2. Rogers PJ, Hogenkamp PS, de Graaf C., et al. Does low-energy sweetener consumption affect energy intake and body weight? A systematic review, including meta-analyses, of the evidence from human and animal studies. Int. J. Obes. 2016; 40: 381–394.