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Are No-Cal Sweeteners Making You GAIN Weight?

One of the biggest constants in the nutrition world is the whole “are no-cal sweeteners a virtue or a vice” debate. The latest take: They may lead you to make waistline-sabotaging choices, according to a new study from the journal Appetite.

For the study, researchers from Texas Christian University conducted three experiments involving no-calorie sweeteners (NCS). In all three, 116 participants ages 18 to 25 were given an unmarked cup filled with either a sugar-sweetened beverage, an unsweetened beverage, or a beverage sweetened with NCS. Then, researchers measured their cognition (experiment one), their product choice (experiment two), and their responses to a sugar-sweetened food (experiment three). For the cognition experiment, the researchers gave participants a list of high-calorie foods, low-calorie foods, and fake words (like “ebusun”) and asked them to identify the words. For the product choice experiment, participants were asked questions about their impressions of the drink they just consumed and then were told to choose either a bottle of water, a package of M&Ms, or a pack of gum. And for the response to sugar experiment, researchers had the volunteers eat as many cookies as they wanted and then report how satisfied they were.  

There were a couple of interesting results: For the cognition experiment, those who consumed NCS identified the names of high-calorie foods more quickly than those who had the sugar-sweetened or unsweetened beverage. In the product choice experiment, the NCS drinkers were more likely to choose candy over gum and water than the non-NCS drinkers. And finally, in the sugar test, those who had the NCS drink reported being less satisfied with the cookies than those who consumed the other drinks.

Researchers say this is consistent with prior MRI studies that suggest consuming NCS can alter your brain's response to foods. And even apart from the effect NCS have on your neural pathways, researchers say you have to be wary of overcompensation syndrome: The idea that, since you know you're saving calories by using NCS, you're more likely to give yourself permission to eat higher-calorie foods at other times.

Granted, you are saving calories by consuming NCS in place of sugar—which is why the researchers say it could still help kick start weight loss. But once you’ve dropped a few pounds, you may want to give up the faux sweeteners entirely—or else you could get sucked into “but I deserve this because I saved calories earlier” mode.

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