Can Stevia Hurt Insulin Sensitivity and Lead to Weight Gain?

Photo courtesy StrengthTheory.com

One staple in natural, sugar free baking pantries is stevia, an herb native to South America and used as an alternative, healthy sweetener. Stevia does not raise blood sugar levels, as it has no carbohydrates (or calories, unless fillers are added, like dextrose or maltodextrin). Stevia does, however, raise insulin levels, which can be good, or bad.

A reason why I stay away from sugar is because it raises both blood sugar and insulin, which, overtime, causes chronic inflammation (which can lead to cancer or other inflammatory diseases) as well as insulin insensitivity. This is where our cells do not respond to insulin well. Our cells need glucose for an energy source, and if cell receptors are not, well, receptive, to insulin, the glucose just floats around and causes damage.

It seems that our bodies have a knack for responding to any sweet taste, whether it be sugar, artificial sweeteners or natural sweeteners like stevia, by secreting insulin. This happens when our sweet taste receptors on our tongue, namely T1R3, are stimulated by a sweet taste (natural or artificial), which then stimulates insulin to bring the “proposed” glucose into the cells. But if there is no measurable rise in blood glucose, like after drinking a tea sweetened with steviaor artificial sweetener, the insulin will store any excess sugar in the body as fat. This may be a reason why diet sodas have been linked to weight gain.

It is proposed that our ancestors, when confronted with a carbohydrate source like berries or fruits, would eat them all up because they didn’t come across them that often. Insulin would rise and store fat so that it can be used as an energy source in famine times (which were common).

By the way, insulin stores excess sugar as fat, which is why you want to avoid raising blood sugar constantly. The cells will become resistant to the insulin secreted, and the sugar will be stored as fat.  This is a very simple explanation, but does give a glimpse into one of the roles of this hormone.

So…stevia, which is a natural substance, CAN raise insulin levels (but not blood sugar levels). There are conflicting views on whether this is good or bad. Remember that constantly raising insulin can make the cells less receptive, meaning that when you actually eat carbohydrates, and those carbohydrates are broken down into sugar monomers (we’re concerned with glucose at the moment), the cells won’t be able to utilize them well.

One study shows that stevia can enhance insulin sensitivity, which is great! We do need to take in consideration, however, the above paragraph. Do we really want to be raising our insulin levels? Studies have shown that insulin levels are a major driving force in the aging process.

Can Stevia Lead to Weight Gain?

If you take in consideration the above study about stevia enhancing insulin sensitivity, then the answer would more likely be “no”.  Although, if one is addicted to a sweet taste, whether from sugar or stevia, it is more likely to be a resounding “yes”. This is because that the addiction to sweetness (just look at the many diet soda drinkers around you, who “think” they’re doing good), as constantly consuming any type of food, low calorie or not, can lead to imbalance within the body.

We know that diet soda can lead to weight gain. Many people regard the insulin secretion as the culprit. When there are no carbohydrates (or calories), and no blood sugar rise, accompanying the rise in insulin, the body will seek additional calories to make up for this response. It’s a very difficult explanation to make, but hopefully you can relate this to the daily consumption of sweeteners in general.

Consuming stevia with calories, however, such as any healthy dessert, may be favorable. Blood glucose levels rise after consuming carbohydrates and protein (which isn’t commonly known), so receiving a healthy insulin secretion is crucial to take in that much needed glucose for energy. Limiting these foods, as part of a whole food diet, can do wonders for the body. You won’t even have to worry, in my opinion, if you are already healthy. Plus, if you are receiving plenty of daily physical activity (especially interval cardio, or cardio in general), you are making your cells more sensitive to the effects of insulin. This is what we want.

If you are having trouble with weight, and are always consuming sweetened beverages, desserts, candies, etc. (which I LOVE, and will continue to make), perhaps take a semi sweet free challenge, like the one I blogged about a few months ago. See what happens by cutting back on sweetened foods and drinks everyday.

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