Why I quit stevia
Is stevia addictive?
“No it’s not! I use it every day in my very healthy diet and I’m just fine, thankyouverymuch, stevia is not addictive and couldn’t possibly be harmful.”
If that is your gut response to the question I’ve just asked, then consider the fact that reactions speak louder than words. I would know… that was my reaction years ago, when I felt both fear and anger at the suggestion of stevia being harmful.
This is my definition of food addiction, and I believe most practitioners would agree with it: if there is a food which you consume daily, and crave desperately when you do not get a daily dose, then that is a food to which you are addicted.
If, by that definition, you are addicted to stevia, you may reason that it’s not a bad addiction. After all, stevia is a harmless and calorie-free plant extract. You may consider it beneficial to your health, because it supports you in avoiding refined sugar.
In this post, I’m sharing my personal experience as well as the research from The Stevia Deception by naturopath Dr. Bruce Fife. When I received Dr. Fife’s book recently, I read it in one sitting and immediately wanted to share his message.
Years ago, I wrote a post called Why I Quit Stevia. This post went viral, with 22K Facebook shares, and was met with a wide range of heated responses. At the time, I wished I had more sources to support my stance, because I felt it was critical information to share.
Four years later, I still avoid stevia. In this post, I share additional research and viewpoints on why this is a wise choice.
My experience with stevia addiction
In The Stevia Deception, Dr. Fife explains that has seen patients switch their sugar addiction to stevia addiction. He considers sugar addiction sweet addiction, because is simply transferred from sugar to other sweeteners. He offers this as anecdote, later backed up with thorough research, but he is very insightful to start with this observation. I believe there are very few people who, after eliminating sugar, transfer their sweet cravings to stevia. You may have experienced this, as I have.
My first year on a grain free diet, I had a rocky relationship with carbohydrates and sugar. I don’t believe I made “mistakes” in what I ate, I simply needed to experience how best to fuel my body.
I initially went waaay too low carb, by ditching grains and jumping on the anti-candida bandwagon. Without any natural sugars from fruits or starchy veggies, my body became extremely fatigued and weak. I was an emotional wreck and I literally couldn’t handle spilled milk. And then there were the dizzy spells. Every time I stood up or tried to walk up the stairs, I became extremely dizzy and my vision blurred.
I struggled for two weeks and watched my sugar cravings skyrocket. And so I coped with copious amounts of stevia. I could not get through one day without a stevia-sweetened beverage or some horrifying low-carb concoction of cauliflower pudding sweetened with stevia (good Lord, I was truly desperate).
Eventually, I settled into my optimal carb intake without counting carbs, because I don’t want to live my life counting grams of macronutrients. If you want to learn the steps I took, please read my post How To Eat Sugar.
When I reintroduced an optimal amount of carbs to my diet, it coincided with reading a blog post by a nutritionist who suggested that the body responds to stevia the same way it does to sugar: with a release of insulin. I needed no more convincing – it made absolute sense to me. It explained why I felt hooked on stevia the same way I had felt hooked on sugar. I immediately ditched stevia and its unpleasant aftertaste.
Evolution versus the blink of an eye
When it comes to assessing the safety and health properties of food, I place the most trust in the wisdom of human evolution.
The human body evolved for millennia to have a specific biological response when our tongue detects sweetness. Until 60 years ago – a blink of an eye in human evolution – a sweet taste always meant incoming sugar. The human body adapted to use that sugar for energy.
When we taste sweetness, the pancreas release insulin to prepare for the glucose (blood sugar) that will soon be absorbed from the food and released into the bloodstream. The insulin shuttles glucose into cells, allowing our cells to use the glucose for energy.
We know, from scientific studies, that our evolutionary programming kicks into gear when we eat stevia (or erythritol or xylitol or any other sugar-free sweetener). In response to the sweetness of stevia, the body still releases insulin to prepare for sugar. Without the incoming sugar, the insulin pulls too much glucose already in our bloodstream into our cells. This brings blood sugar levels too low.
The result? Overeating and sugar cravings. Dr Fife explains, “when expected calories do not come from the artificially-sweetened foods, feelings of hunger intensify, which promotes overeating to compensate for the missing calories.”
Dr. Fife sees it over and over again: those who eat stevia instead of sugar are hungrier after meals, and experience severe cravings. The cells in their bodies are instinctively trying to get the sugar they expected.
Is stevia safe? Here’s the research:
The following is summarized from a few of the studies outlined in Dr. Fife’s book:
- Research shows that stevia, as well as other sugar-free sweeteners such as aspartame, cause a drop in blood sugar and a release in insulin when taken orally (because the sweet-taste receptors on the tongue are triggered)
- In numerous studies, stevia extract does not cause an insulin release when taken in capsules. This suggests it is the sweet taste, not the actual stevia, that causes a problematic blood sugar reaction.
- Rats given stevia-sweetened water gained more weight than rats given glucose-sweetened water. This suggests the rats overate to compensate for the hunger-inducing effects of stevia.
- Human and animal studies that non-caloric sweeteners stimulate appetite and encourage overeating more than sugar.
Those are merely a few studies on the metabolic effects of stevia. The other research on stevia suggests that, particularly in its extracted form, it may disrupt thyroid hormones and fertility.
Experiencing freedom in my relationship with sugar
Dr. Fife concludes the book with this simple nutrition prescription:
If you want to find success losing excess weight, managing your blood sugar, and improving your overall health, choose a diet build around whole, natural foods. […] A diet that relies on the natural sweetness of fresh foods, without sugar and without sugar substitutes that will free you from the chains of sweet addiction, yet will still allow you to enjoy satisfying, delicious meals.
That’s how I’ve chosen to eat for the last few years. I enjoy occasional treats, such as grain free baked goods or even sugar-sweetened ice cream, but I do not crave sweetness. I only only enjoy it. It was a journey to get here, but I now feel freedom in my relationship with sugar.
How to master your sweet cravings
Here are three steps to get the upper hand on your sweet cravings, whether you crave stevia or sugar:
Eat healthy fats at each meal, to provide sustained energy and slow the absorption of glucose (sugar) into your bloodstream. This helps you maintain sustained energy levels, rather than riding the blood-sugar-rollercoaster. Click here to read my guide to Balance Blood Sugar Levels with healthy fats and protein.
Reach for other foods that can satiate carb cravings. Click here for my post on 8 foods that can satiate those cravings.
Need a baby step? Have a batch of my blood-sugar-balancing buttermints on hand. These have just a couple grams of sugar from raw honey, but are loaded with fat-soluble vitamins and satiating fats to immediately curb your sugar cravings. This is one of my most popular recipes for a reason… they really work.