One staple in natural, sugar-free baking is stevia, a South American herb used as an alternative to refined sugar. Since stevia extract is free from carbohydrates, it does not raise blood sugar levels (or calories, unless fillers are added, like dextrose or maltodextrin). Stevia does, however, raise insulin levels according to some research, which can be both good and bad.
A reason why I stay away from sugar is because it raises both blood sugar and insulin. Over time, spikes in blood sugar can cause chronic inflammation, a key contributor to aging, cancer, and even metabolic syndrome. High blood sugar and insulin levels also cause insulin resistance, or type 2 diabetes. While our cells prefer glucose as a prime energy source, if cell receptors are not–well, receptive–to insulin, the glucose just floats around and causes damage.
Can Stevia Lead to Diabetes and Weight Gain?
It seems that our bodies have a knack for responding to any sweet taste by secreting insulin. Whether the sweet taste be from pure sugar, artificial sweeteners, or natural sweeteners like stevia, the body provides similar insulin responses. This happens when a receptor on our tongue, namely T1R3, is 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 consume them quickly and sometimes in one sitting because they didn’t come across these carbohydrate sources often. Following consumption, insulin would rise and store fat so that it could be used as an energy source during times of famine. The thing is, famine isn’t as big of a deal as it was in the past, yet more people than ever before are still consuming carbohydrates–and any sweet-tasting food–in excess.
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, may 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 the above study into consideration about stevia enhancing insulin sensitivity, then the answer would more likely be “no.” Although, if one is addicted to sweet tastes–regardless of the source–it is more likely to be a resounding “yes.” This is because the addiction to sweetness (just look at the many diet soda drinkers around you, who “think” they’re doing good), as well as the addiction to any type of food, can lead to imbalance within the body and the mind.
Some research is showing that diet sodas lead to weight gain, perhaps much more so than drinking regular sugar-sweetened soda. Many people regard the insulin secretion as the culprit. When there are no carbohydrates (or calories), there is no glucose accompanying the rise in insulin. So, the body will seek additional calories to make up for this response. In other words: no carbohydrates = no glucose = no energy for cells = the body craving carbohydrates to accompany the sweet taste we’ve evolutionary believed to be a source of energy.
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.