Managing our desire for “something sweet” while staying at home. Can low/no calorie sweeteners help?

Author(s): Vicky Pyrogianni MSc, Dietitian – Nutritionist; Nutrition Science Director, ISA; Board Member of the Hellenic Dietetic Association

This year has been marked by an unprecedented situation around the world. National authorities worldwide have urged people to stay at home to stay safe and to help countries contain the spread of COVID-19. As a consequence, and beyond the need for everyone to stay safe and healthy, many of our daily routines have been affected. While we are closer to getting back to some of our old habits, many everyday activities, work- and/or leisure-related, have changed and will likely remain different for some more time. Similarly, our usual food-related practices and eating habits have been impacted too. However, the latter can be turned into an opportunity for a healthier diet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) supports good nutrition as being crucial for health, particularly in times when the immune system might need to fight back.1 Dietitians highlight that eating sensibly, choosing a varied diet from a range of foods and keeping active are all great ways to boost your health.2

From a nutrition perspective, staying at home could be an opportunity for healthier home-prepared foods, but bears also the risk of leading to an increase in intake of high-calorie (energy-dense) foods. The current situation may also make us prone to “comfort food” and to, what psychology experts call, “emotional eating”.3,4 This refers to the tendency to eat in response to negative mood or emotions, including stress, anxiety, boredom or fear. Craving for sweet-tasting foods and treats is also a concern for many individuals who are trying to manage their “sweet tooth” while spending more time than usually at home.

So, the question that comes up is how can we manage our desire for something sweet? Can we simply ignore it? Can low/no calorie sweeteners help us have the sweet taste with no or less sugar and fewer calories? What does science show?

Practical tips based on “maths” and science

Sweetness liking is innate.5 We are born with a natural preference for sweetness, so simply ignoring our desire to eat something sweet might not work. For example, we know from studies in people who follow a calorie-restricted diet that dieters experience strong cravings for the very foods they are trying to restrict.6

The “maths”: Eating a low/no calorie sweetened dessert in place of a sugary treat can help us keep our overall calorie and sugar intakes down. For example, we can use low/no calorie table-top sweeteners to prepare our own “lighter” home-prepared dessert recipes like rice pudding, chocolate mousse, sorbet or home-made yogurt ice-cream. For every teaspoon of sugar that we substitute with table-top sweeteners, we reduce our recipe energy content by about 16-20 calories. Other ideas are to choose a fruit jelly with sweeteners instead of sugar, which can “save” us about 70 calories per serving and most of the added sugar. Similarly, a scoop of vanilla ice cream has about 50 less calories when it is sweetened with low/no calorie sweeteners compared to the sugar-sweetened version. More information about sugar swaps are available in Chapter 3 of the ISA booklet “Low Calorie Sweeteners: Role and Benefits”.

The science: Research shows that choosing a low/no calorie sweetened drink may actually lower the desire for consuming sweet foods. This was found in a recent publication including three studies by Rogers et al., which concluded that consumption of low/no calorie sweetened drinks acutely decreases desire for sweet foods.7 Another study published last year by Maloney et al. showed that low/no calorie sweetened beverages may help people who consume sweeteners to eat less by controlling food cravings and also help them feel greater meal enjoyment, more in control and less guilty about their eating.8

More practical tips: If you crave something sweet, you may try fresh fruit like in a fruit salad as a first option for example. Dried fruit with no added sugar is also an option; but be mindful of how many pieces you eat. When you opt for other dessert options, make sure that they are low in sugar, or sweetened with low/no calorie sweeteners, and consume small portions.

A final note: While social distancing and staying at home has created a “new routine”, we can try to turn this challenging situation into an opportunity to improve our dietary and lifestyle habits by cooking a variety of healthy recipes, eating more vegetables and fruits, and adding more exercise in and out of home, while always following the national rules about exercising out of home.

Stay safe and eat well!

  1. World Health Organization (WHO) Europe. Food and nutrition tips during self-quarantine. Cited on 15 April 2020
  2. British Dietetic Association (BDA). Healthy Eating: Food Fact Sheet. Cited on 15 April 2020
  3. Spence C. Comfort food: A review. Int J Gastronomy & Food Science 2017; 9: 105-109
  4. Mantau A, Hattula S, Bornemann T. Individual determinants of emotional eating: A simultaneous investigation. Appetite 2019; 130: 93-103
  5. Wittekind A, K Higgins, L McGale, et al. A workshop on ‘Dietary sweetness: Is it an issue?’. Int J Obes (Lond) 2018; 42(4): 934-938
  6. Massey A and Hill AJ. Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study. Appetite 2012; 58(3); 781-785
  7. Rogers PJ, Ferriday D, Irani B, et al. Sweet satiation: Acute effects of consumption of sweet drinks on appetite for and intake of sweet and non-sweet foods. Appetite 2020 Feb 11; 149:104631. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2020.104631. [Epub ahead of print]
  8. 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