NEWS

Diet Drinks May Increase Hunger, Study Suggests

diet soda


champlifezy / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Drinks that contain nonnutritive sweeteners, like the kind in diet beverages, do not seem to lead to weight loss compared to sweetened drinks.
  • Diet drinks may actually increase food cravings, especially in women and those who struggle with obesity.
  • Dietitians indicate these sweeteners can also cause stomach upset for some people.

There are a variety of reasons people add diet drinks to their grocery cart. Often, diet culture is the guiding force in this decision. But, beverages containing artificial sweeteners may actually increase food cravings, especially in women and those who struggle with obesity, according to a study in JAMA Network Open.

“When the body doesn’t get the calories it’s expecting when you have those sweet flavors, it may cause a person to consume more to get them,” says registered dietitian Melissa Hooper, RD, of Bite Size Nutrition.

About the Study

Researchers studied 74 participants who consumed drinks containing what is called nonnutritive sweeteners (NNS), which include sugar substitutes like aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, and Rebaudioside-A (also known as reb-A or stevia). In this particular study, only sucralose was used. All of these products add sweetness to products without calories.

Looking at brain regions related to appetite and food cravings, researchers found that in the 2 hours following consumption of NNS-sweetened beverages, participants showed increased activity in those regions.

For both men and women, consumption also decreased levels of hormones associated with satiety, which means the beverages were not only ineffective in promoting feelings of fullness, they actually caused participants to be hungrier.

Implications of the Research

The results in the recent study could become more problematic as people increasingly turn toward NNS-sweetened foods and beverages as a way to manage weight. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at purchasing trends from 2002 to 2018 in U.S. households. What they found was a decrease in sugar consumption, but a boost in NNS.

Melissa Hooper, RD

While we don’t know the long-term effects of consuming nonnutritive sweeteners, we do know some sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and xylitol can cause diarrhea and bloating.

— Melissa Hooper, RD

The change from sugar to NNS is significant, the study found. For example, consumption of products with sucralose jumped from 38% to 71%. Stevia was the largest change, with an increase from 0.1% to 26%.

Overall, beverages represented the biggest shift, which Hooper says is not surprising considering the breadth of NNS-fueled drinks that are available. However, too much of those sweeteners, especially in a concentrated form like those found in beverages, can prompt issues.

“While we don’t know the long-term effects of consuming nonnutritive sweeteners, we do know some sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and xylitol can cause diarrhea and bloating,” she says.

In terms of the results of the recent study, she adds those are not surprising either. Previous research has suggested that NNS may increase appetite since the body associates sweet tastes with calories and energy.

Same as Sugar?

Many people make the switch to NNS-enhanced products as a pivot away from sugar, with the assumption that these artificial sweeteners are healthier. But research on that approach is inconclusive as well.

Eloi Chazelas, PhD(c)

Our study suggests the diet drinks may not be as healthy as people think, since the heart health issues may be similar to sugary drinks.

— Eloi Chazelas, PhD(c)

Researchers surveyed about 104,000 participants on their dietary choices over an 18-month period, including beverage types, and compared that data to cardiovascular events in that group within a 10-year timeframe.

They found those with the most frequent consumption of both sugary drinks and artificially sweetened beverages had higher cardiovascular events compared to those who did not have these types of drinks. That means the “diet” drinks were not more protective compared to the non-NNS type.

"Our study suggests the diet drinks may not be as healthy as people think, since the heart health issues may be similar to sugary drinks," says study lead author Eloi Chazelas, PhD(c), member of the Nutritional Epidemiology Research Team at Sorbonne Paris Nord University. "Evidence is not yet clear about how these artificially sweetened beverages affect cardiometabolic processes. It may come as a result of factors like altered gut microbiota, increased belly fat, or impaired glucose regulation."

The takeaway of the current research and previous studies may be that it is advisable to treat diet drinks in the same way you would sugary versions, suggests Hopper. Focus on occasional consumption, if any, rather than reaching for these beverages regularly.

What This Means For You

Research suggests that diet beverages may cause more food cravings, making them less ideal for those trying to manage weight. If your goal is to manage weight or eat a more balanced eating plan, talk to a registered dietitian for guidance on what is right for you.

Was this page helpful?
3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Yunker AG, Alves JM, Luo S, et al. Obesity and sex-related associations with differential effects of sucralose vs sucrose on appetite and reward processing: a randomized crossover trialJAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(9):e2126313. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.26313

  2. Dunford EK, Miles DR, Ng SW, Popkin B. Types and amounts of nonnutritive sweeteners purchased by us households: a comparison of 2002 and 2018 Nielsen homescan purchasesJournal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2020;120(10):1662-1671.e10. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2020.04.022

  3. ScienceDaily. Artificially sweetened drinks might not be heart healthier than sugar drinks. Updated October 26, 2020.