“I love your book but I have a big problem and a question for you.” Since this was coming from my favorite cousin, I knew she was obligated to say she loved the book. But she had a “big problem.” Was she about to attack a major premise? I braced for the question.
“Do I have to give up Stevia? I’m just not sure that I can.”
First off, I love this question. It is a very specific question. She can focus on this level of detail because she already eats predominately real foods, vegetables first with healthy fats, and with appropriate quantities of high quality animal sources. She already commits to regular exercise and physical activity and does her best with stress reduction and sleep.
Check. She gets the big picture. That’s 90% of my job when it comes to advising clients how to reframe their nutrition and lifestyle. The details may be harder to answer completely, but they are easier in the sense that the big picture is taken care of.
So, what about Stevia?
Stevia comes from the stevia plant, Stevia rebaudiana, and has naturally occurring glycosides which are extracted from the plant to concentrate the sweet flavor. Sounds great, right? It is a natural plant, what could be wrong?
It is the best of the sweeteners as it has no calories or absorbable carbohydrates.
It has been shown to have minimal effect of on glucose, a claim that artificial sweeteners cannot make. In fact, stevia proponents market it specifically for those with diabetes.
Interestingly, stevia does increase insulin levels. Some promote this as a benefit. If it increases insulin without increasing glucose, then it could help treat hyperglycemia seen in diabetes. That assumes, however, that higher insulin levels are beneficial.
That is likely an incorrect assumption. Insulin is a pro-inflammatory fat storage hormone. Therefore, more insulin in the body can cause increased fat mass and increased inflammation. How much insulin is too much? That is very difficult to say. But it makes sense that we should all strive for optimal blood glucose control with the lowest possible amount of insulin in our bodies.
Stevia’s effect on insulin is small, especially when compared to sugar and artificial sweeteners, so it is unclear if this is “harmful” or not. As with most things, it is not a black or white answer. Shades of grey predominate.
In addition, some stevia products, such as Truvia, are highly processed versions of stevia that contain very little pure stevia extract. Remember, stevia has to survive on the store shelf, so manufacturers add chemical such as erythitriol or dextrose, plus added flavors.
Other versions, like Green leaf stevia, are less processed and more pure.
Stevia extract is much sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a long way.
Many have claimed even greater health benefits from stevia. However, claims for weight loss, cholesterol reduction, improved blood pressure, and even anti-cancer benefits are poorly researched and far from proven.
The Real Issue
The real problem with stevia is not with its chemical structure or its physiological effects on our blood sugar. The real problem is that Stevia reinforces our dependency on sweet tastes.
We can train our taste buds, for better or for worse. I see it time and time again. One sweetener becomes two, which then becomes three. Yet we don’t find the increased sweetener increasing the “sweetness.” That is because our taste buds adapt to the sweetness and require more.
As a society, sugar and sweet flavors have become an epidemic. We need to train our taste buds and our brains to not require sweeter and sweeter foods. That is where I see the big problem with stevia. It is too sweet and is a slippery slope to seeking sweetness in other aspects of our food and drink.
If you need a sweetener, and I encourage you to explore your definition of need, then stevia is likely your best choice. If you can minimize the amount you use, even better. Remember, we can train our taste buds. We can require less sweet taste and can still enjoy our meals.
Go for a whole week without sugar or artificial sweeteners. That includes even the “natural” sugars like real maple syrup, honey and others. It’s just 7-days. You can do it. At the end of the week, if you feel the need to go back to your sugar or sugar substitute, cut it in half. You may find that your taste buds have adapted and half your usual amount is now just right.
Thanks for reading.
Bret Scher, MD FACC
Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health