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.