We already know that sugar is bad for the waistline. So when we look to slim down, switching to artificial sweeteners seems like a no-brainer. They're calorie-free, after all. But scientists are beginning to understand that there's more to the weight-loss story than calories alone. Artificial sweeteners, scientists believe, may have an unkind chemical effect on the brain. Like sweet saboteurs, sugar substitutes emerge from their paper packets to mess with our metabolism and baffle the brain -- in several different ways.

sugar substitute into coffee
Photo by Meredith

The Brain Connection

The newest research, as described in Scientific American, indicates that sugar substitutes might actually induce hunger by creating a starvation-like scenario in the brain. Sugar subs create a disconnect; the brain detects sweetness but can't identify any corresponding calories, because there aren't any. And since calorie-free sweetness is not a situation that occurs in nature, the brain cannot compute. Instead, the befuddled brain, sensing an energy imbalance, tells the body, "hey, you're starving! Go find food!" This message to motivate is, of course, directly at odds with our intentions. For crying out loud, we didn't choose a sugar substitute to make us hungrier!

So that's a poke in the eye. Want another jab? Artificial sweeteners might actually cause us to derive more pleasure from sugar. Again Scientific American breaks it down: "when the brain detects sweetness in the absence of actual caloric energy, it compensates by increasing the palatability of sugar." Not surprisingly, getting more pleasure from sugar makes us want to eat more of it.

So that's a double dip of bad news for dieters. And here's the third scoop: According to Nature, some sugar substitutes seem to alter gut microbes in a way that actually promotes the absorption of calories. That's just cold.

Yes, sugar substitute, you're the ultimate saboteur. Not only do you make us hungrier, you make us crave even more the foods we're trying not to crave in the first place by putting you in as a sub, and then you make us absorb more of the calories. Super-sinister move, sugar substitute!

Try This Trick

Unfortunately, going back to sugar isn't the answer either. However, here's something, also from science: The first bite of something sweetened with sugar always tastes best. It's the most rewarding. After that initial taste, the brain lessens the reward. And that's news you can use. Knowing that subsequent bites can never be as amazing as the first, you can double down on being mindful of the experience: Think about tasting and truly savoring a small serving of something sweet and enjoying it to the max, safe in the knowledge that the next bite and the bite after that won't be as rewarding; it might help you walk away from that slice of cheesecake before the meh sets in. At the very least, it's a mind trick worth trying.