Do you choose stevia or xylitol over natural sweeteners like honey? Do you make an effort to tightly limit natural sugar consumption due to candida issues or fear of weight gain? Then this is the post for you! Also, before we go further, let me say that I am NOT pro white sugar or corn syrup or other processed sweeteners. I do believe that natural, unprocessed sugars (like fruit, raw honey and pure maple syrup) play an important part of a healthy diet.
I tried quitting sugar. It sucked.
Part of my goal with my blog is to share my health experiences with you so that you can learn from my mistakes… without making the mistakes yourself! So here is my mistake with quitting sugar: When I first began a healing grain-free diet called the GAPS diet, my ulcerative colitis symptoms disappeared. Eager to support my body’s healing process (I really only had good intentions), I jumped on the “anti-candida diet” bandwagon (I explain below why this is a bad idea). So here I was on a limited grain free diet, and I decided also to take out honey and fruits. This sounds like an extreme choice, but many candida diets and “blood sugar control” diets actually recommend this intense carb and sugar limitation.
Well, that lasted about two weeks. Things started to slide downhill… quickly. I felt like a rock: I was so fatigued that a walk around the block left me exhausted. 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, my head went spinning and my vision blurred. Now I know this is because my sugar limitation had left my adrenals helpless. Interestingly, it is the adrenals job to constrict blood vessels when standing to prevent this dizziness. But adrenals need sugar to function.
When I began loading up my body with starchy veggies like winter squash, lots of raw honey, and ripe fruit, these debilitating symptoms disappeared in a couple of days. I had learned my lesson: my body needs sugar. But I didn’t know WHY.
Why Your Body Needs Sugar
I was ecstatic nearly to the point of tears when I first read Kate’s and Cassie’s book, I Didn’t Quit Sugar. I finally understand the numerous important roles this demonized nutrient played in my health. I deeply respect Kate’s and Cassie’s no-nonsense, no-dogma philosophy about nutrition. It is truly refreshing.
UPDATE: I recently learned that this book is no longer available. I’m a bit heartbroken about it, and I’m sorry that you won’t be able to purchase it. Another great resource I would recommend to learn more about the role of sugar in the diet is the book, The Nourished Metabolism.
After taking the plunge into a very low-carb or sugar-free diet, many folks experience amazing weight loss and increased energy. Unfortunately, these are actually symptoms of disregulation in the body.
What most fail to realize is that such changes are attributable to a state of cellular stress and a consequent rise in stress hormones (remember, the cells are being denied their favourite fuel). For 3 months, 6 months, perhaps a year (this is affectionately termed the ‘honeymoon phase’), stress hormones will make you feel excellent – they promote euphoria and a heightened sense of wellbeing.
But beneath the surface, stress hormones do exactly as their name suggests – they’re a stress on the body in its entirety. Prolonged elevation can break down body tissue, impair thyroid function, damage the metabolism and devastate the body physiologically -I Didn’t Quit Sugar (Now unavailable)
Anti-dogma health renegade Matt Stone also states that depriving your body of sugar is going to mean long-term consequences. He explains in his book Diet Recovery:
Most people will eventually develop health problems on a low-carb diet (or low-fat diet, to pick on the fat haters too and anyone engaged in Macronutrient Warfare) – including even gaining a bunch of weight back that they initially lost, and they will eventually crave carbohydrates or find that a carb-free diet has become just too socially crippling.….The real answer is to improve glucose metabolism and digestion.
Risks of a Sugar-Free Diet
Although we may experience the “honeymoon period” when we first start a sugar-free diet, things start to slide downhill in the long run. Here’s some of the problems when we deprive our body of it’s favorite fuel: glucose!
- Elevated levels of stress hormones, which exhausts the adrenals and taxes the body
- Impaired thyroid function by lowering T3 production (as a result of increased levels of adrenaline and lack of glycogen in the liver)
- Lowered metabolism and weight gain due to impaired thyroid
- Weakened digestion and nutrient malabsorption
- Systemic candida overgrowth. That’s right–the very thing you are trying to starve out with a sugar-free diet will actually get worse . The real solution is to correct digestion, heal the gut, and improve metabolism… and you need sugar in your diet to accomplish those things. Read more busted candida myths in my candida post here.
Sugar-Free Natural Sweeteners: A Bad Choice
Healthy eating is a lifelong journey and a learning process. One of the more recent things I learned is that sugar-free sweeteners, even if they are “natural” aren’t a good choice for our bodies.
Our bodies are not designed or evolved to handle calorie-free sweeteners–be it natural or artificial. We all know that artificial sweeteners like aspartame are toxic, but what about natural sugar-free sweeteners like xylitol and stevia? Experiencing a sweet taste from a food that is not going to provide glucose confounds our body’s sugar-handling process. Eating a sugar-free sweetener like stevia or xylitol can trick the body into a state of hypoglycemia:
Stevia is “sweet” on the palate, so the body assumes it is receiving sugar and primes itself to do so. Glucose is cleared from the bloodstream and blood sugars drop, but no real sugar/glucose is provided to the body to compensate. When this happens, adrenaline and cortisol surge to mobilize sugar from other sources (liver and muscle glycogen, or protein, or body tissue) to bring blood glucose back up. (Source – I Didn’t Quit Sugar, which is now unavailable)
The frequent release of the stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) in response to the stevia-induced hypoglycemia is damaging to our adrenal glands and overall health. These stress hormones are designed to be utilized when we need to be in a flight-or-fight response–not when we are eating a meal. The consequences of excess stress hormones means a suppressed immune system, increased inflammation, and lower thyroid function… just to name a few!
I’m not a scientist, but one nutrition scientists whom I greatly admire – Sarah Ballantyne - is strongly apprehensive of the hormonal structure of stevia molecules. According to Sarah,
Steviol glycosides are synthesized in the same pathway and end up being structurally very similar to the plant hormones gibberellin and kaurene. This means that steviol glycosides have a hormone structure… There is evidence that steviol glycosides have contraceptive effects in both males and females. In particular, one specific steviol glycoside, called stevioside, has been shown to have potent contraceptive properties in female rats, implying that stevia may have an impact on estrogen, progesterone or both.
While small and occasional consumption of stevia likely has little to no impact on general health, it should not be consumed on a regular basis especially by those with altered hormone balance and dysfunctional immune systems. (Read more)
Further, I recently discussed 6 reasons why I quit stevia.
Why do folks reach for these sugar-free sweeteners? Usually, it is because they are afraid of sugar or trying to avoid carbs. I believe this is the wrong approach to nourishing our bodies. We should reach for nutrient-dense foods, with attention to variety, quality and moderation.
How to eat sugar
Your body needs sugar, but QUALITY COUNTS. Refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup is not going to provide your body with good cell fuel.
Use unrefined sweeteners. These include things like raw honey, 100% pure maple syrup, dates, raisins, sucanut, coconut sugar, and freshly pressed at home (not commercial) fruit juices. Unlike processed sweeteners, these sugars in their whole food sources contain the minerals your body requires to metabolize the sugar.
Eat ripe fruits as snacks. Some folks find they digest fruits better when eaten without other foods. Fruits digest much faster than other foods and can cause some digestive distress if consumed with a lot of fat and protein. But we all know that fruit-based desserts like cobblers and upside-down cakes are delicious. So if you don’t have any unpleasant symptoms combining fruits with meals, have a piece of apple pie!
Eat sugar with fat and protein. Quality fats slows down the absorption of glucose into the blood stream, providing satiation and satisfaction. Protein helps pull sugar into the cells so your body can use it for energy. Homemade ice cream is a great example of wholesome sweetness balanced with nourishing fat and a bit of protein.
Swap starch for fruit. I recommend this easy swap for those with troubled digestion or those wanting to loose stubborn weight. Whole-food sources of sugar support metabolism and blood sugar balance while commercially-prepared grains spike blood sugar. For example, if you usually have a sandwich for lunch, have the sandwich filling without the bread and enjoy an pear on the side.
Use natural sugars instead of sugar-free “natural” sweeteners. Stevia and xylitol are devoid of nutrients and trick your body (as discussed above), so swap them for a healthy sweetener that gives your cells healthy fuel.
Relax and enjoy the sugar. This point, of course, applies to anything we eat. We need to be in a parasympathetic mode to produce stomach acid and digestive enzymes. If we are stressed out or eating on the run, we can’t properly digest and assimilate the nutrients in our foods. So relax, sit down, turn off the TV, and mindfully celebrate each bite of food you take into your body. Don’t feel guilty while enjoying your healthy source of sugar. Sugar is delicious, so consciously enjoy it.
Don’t count things like grams or calories. I already shared 5 Reasons Why Calories Don’t Count. Counting things like calories or sugar grams distort focus to quantity instead of quality. It also prevents a genuine relationship with food and promotes stress, not satiety (and, like I mentioned above, stress drastically impairs digestion).
What about Candida?
Do you struggle with candida? Then you need to read my post, Busted: Candida Myths! You’ll also learn the problems with the candida diet and a safer, healthier solution to eliminating candida overgrowth.
Do you have a rocky relationship with sugar? Have you tried quitting sugar before?