Rats can’t count calories or keep tiny, little rat food journals

Not long ago there was a research study that found that rats who drank water sweetened with aspartame ate more sweet foods when given the opportunity than rats not given the aspartame sweetened water.

This has inspired two new diet myths (that irritate me, which is why I’m writing this editorial).

1.  All artificial sweetners make you eat more sweets (or more accurately artificial sweeteners make you want to eat more sweets).

Firstly, the study was only of aspartame, so condemning all artificial sweeteners is premature – and secondly humans are not rats, and we have abilities that rats do not. Rats aren’t able to keep a food journal and set and keep a daily calorie limit.  They can’t say “I know this might make me hungrier for a short period of time, but the emotional satisfaction of having a low-calorie “sweet” dessert is worth a short period of inconveniently having to deal with a few cravings that might occur.”


2.  As a result of myth number 1, It’s better to eat “real” sugar.

This one really irritates me, because I believe in the original study, there was no sugar-water group.  The effecfts of aspartame-water was compared to plain water.  There’s no evidence at all that this “hungry for more sugar” experience doesn’t happen as much or more with real sugar, yet people are also saying that you should “eat real sugar” because artificial sweetener makes you hungrier for sweets than real sugar does (there’s been absolutely no support in the research for that claim, as far as I’m aware – in fact, quite a bit the reverse. Sugar is at least as likely to increase hunger for more sweet flavors – so eating “real” sugar probably is no better).


I an NOT saying that using artificial sweeteners is necessary to weight loss.  There’s no reason to use them if you don’t want to.  However, an advantage that humans have over rats (probably) is the ability to think about and control our actions.  A rat is unable (I think it’s reasonable to assume) to think “boy I’m starting to pack on the ounces, I’d better cut back on the munchies.”


As a human, we can count calories (or whatever we want to count, carb grams, fat grams, food exchanges, Weight Watcher’s points…), and we can follow diet plans (whether we invented them or someone else), and we can keep food logs, and diet journals to help us gauge our own success.

Unlike a rat, we can keep a food log.  We can write notes in it about how hungry we feel, what we’re craving, how we’re feeling physically …. and if we see patterns that concern us, we can take corrective action.

If aspartame gives you headaches, or you get extra hard to ignore cravings after eating Splenda-sweetened treats, you can decide for yourself whether the food is “worth the trouble.”

My food journals helped me discover that I have a reaction to wheat (that seems worst with bread, so maybe I have a secondary allergy/sensitivity to yeast or some other bread ingredient). I’m avoiding wheat, and planning on eventually getting allergy and celiac tested.

I find that on a very low-carb diet (Atkins induction level) with no sweets or sweeteners of any kind – that I am the least hungry, but I’m also the least enthused about my diet. I feel most like I’m on a diet, and do not feel I’m eating on a plan I can stick with. I also lose the most weight (still not fast, but a whole lot faster than on a high-carb diet of the same calories).

Artificial sweeteners seem to make me hungrier for sweets, and hungrier in general, but the effect seems FAR LESS intense than real carbohydrates do. If I eat something too sweet, even some fruits I find that I feel like I’m “starving” within an hour. If I eat protein with the piece of fruit, this doesn’t happen or is less bothersome.

I find that the emotional satisfaction of having sweet treats is more valuable to me than the small difference in hunger. As a human being, I can choose to ignore hunger, or satisfy it with a zero or low calorie snack.

I do find that my particular downfall is mindless eating – eating without a plan. As much value as I place on food journaling – it’s also something I find very easy to abandon. I’ll do great for a few weeks, and then get lazy.

Without a plan, I do eat more like an animal (an animal with good table manners) – letting my hunger and cravings guide my eating. When my intellect is in control, and I’m aware of what I’m eating, artificial sweeteners do not seem to affect my weight loss at all. I just can’t afford to go on “auto-pilot,” especially using artificial sweeteners, and even more so on a high-carb diet.

The expression “Are you a man, or are you a mouse?” comes to mind, or in this case “Are you a human, or are you a rat?”   The answer is clear, but living like it – isn’t always quite as simple, and yet we do always have the choice to exercise our humanity.



4 Responses to “Rats can’t count calories or keep tiny, little rat food journals”

  1. Screaming Fat Girl Says:

    I think that, beyond looking at the fact that studies are often done with animals (which is a very important point), we also have to remember that most studies are done with a desired outcome in mind. I’m not suggesting a conspiracy, like the sugar companies are trying to say artificial sweeteners aren’t helpful with diets. However, all researchers set up their research with a target in mind and most of them shape the results by how they construct the study or interpret their results. They want their hypotheses confirmed. This is because a study which confirms that artificial sweeteners have no negative effect on dieting won’t get attention, but one that offers evidence to the contrary will get attention and that gets grants for more research.

    Personally, I use artificial sweeteners in coffee, tea, fruit smoothies, and some baked goods that I make myself. I have not found that it increases cravings for sweet food at all. Of course, I allow myself small numbers of treats everyday (100-200 calories) anyway, so perhaps I’m satisfied. For me, cravings for sweets are related to the end of the meal (or boredom, but I’ve largely dealt with that), not to ingesting artificial sweeteners.

    As always, this was an excellent and thoughtful post!

  2. missmel17 Says:

    I have to tell you that I always took the same tack as you and didn’t blink twice about using Spenda and quaffing a few diet cokes here and there along with my Crystal Light and the avoidance of baked goods made with real sugar. Then something happened, namely that I looked over my budget and decided that I was no longer willing to spend $8 or more on a bag of Splenda or $3 plus on a tube of Crystal Light. So, I took out my canister of real sugar and in the morning I used it in my coffee and made iced tea with it too, adding my own lemon and flavorings. At first I was worried that it wouldn’t only hamper my efforts to lose those 15lbs I’d been lamenating over, but that it would actually add to the number on the scale. Then I noticed that I was using less sugar than Splenda and that I was also completely satisfied with the one cup of coffee instead of the three I used to drink. I also started to bake something every week–a pan of brownies, a batch of cookies, a pound cake, some cup cakes, etc. and not only was I able to enjoy my sweets in moderate portions, but I was completely satiated with my small, normal portion. After a month of this change, my weight has dropped by several pounds, my waist is smaller and my cravings for sweets are very minimal. I find my self-experimentation interesting to say the least and while I’m no scientist, having more money in my wallet and fewer pounds on my tush is enough to convince me that it was a good change for me.

  3. kaplods Says:

    That’s why I recommend the food journals – experimenting and trial and error are the best weight loss tools we have.

    Like you I’ve been pleasantly surprised with my own experiments – though they yielded very different results from yours. I found that reducing “real” carbs, reduced my craving for the artificial ones as well.

    I found that all carbohydrates (even “good” ones like grains and fruits) can drive my hunger and cravings to insane levels. Artificial sweeteners have an insignificant effect on my hunger compared to “real” carbs, especially sugar. Baked goods are virtually kryiptonite for me. If I have real sugar I want more and more and more. In fact, since I’ve been limiting “real” carbs, my taste for artificial sweeteners have declined as well. I’ve never had a bag of sucralose last so long. I use the Aldi brand rather than Splenda because it’s nearly half the price. It looks like the bag is going to last me (at the rate I’m using it) about a year (equivalent to the Splenda $8 bag for a bit over $4).

    I also never spend $3 for Crystal Light. Unless I can buy the container for less than $2, I don’t buy them. The Aldi and Walmart brands are around $1.80 per container, and I occasionally find Crystal Light and other name brand drinks for $1 to $1.50 at a privately owned close-out store (like Big Lots) which often gets in gourmet foods. I dilute the drink mixes about 3 to 1 with water and add a couple fruit flavored tea bags, and just leave them in the container overnight for a “sun-tea in the fridge.” Even the tea bags come from the close-out store, where I also buy organic chicken broth for 49 cents a can (though I often make my own and freeze it).

    It’s not as easy to eat cheaply on a low-carb diet, but it can be done. Being on disability, the food budget is pretty tight, but we manage by being very careful and creative. We don’t buy veggies pre-cut unless a sale price makes them as cheap as whole veggies (almost never). We almost never buy meats that costs more than $2 per pound, and usually we’re able to spend a lot less by shopping sales and stocking up. Most people don’t believe our food budget, but we’ve got the time to shop carefully and buy in bulk when we can (and a Christmas gift allowed us to purchase a small chest freezer, so we can save even more).

  4. payday today Says:

    Hi all

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