Nutrition is constantly changing. Fads come and go and new foods come and go. It is easy to get caught up in the latest “health” craze and “super” foods out there. I’ve fallen short of this numerous times. Truthfully, there is no such thing as a perfect diet, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for one. One of the latest health fads that many have fallen into is Stevia. Now, I’m not trying to say that it is bad or something we should eliminate. In fact there are many studies suggesting that Stevia has beneficial properties to the body. Plus, it has been used in other cultures for centuries.
As always, I think this one depends on a person to person basis and thus why it is so important to listen to your body. Everyone’s bodies are different and have different needs and requirements. Ultimately, your body will let you know if it doesn’t like something. This is exactly what happened in our house with Stevia. I will first give you our back story to Stevia and then the scientific facts about why we have quit it for good. Finally, I encourage you be the judge.
I encourage you to LISTEN to what your body is telling you or maybe even your kids’ bodies.
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Our Stevia Story:
Stevia, a popular zero-calorie, “natural” (that term is debatable) sweetener that is being used by so many health-nuts today and at one time included myself. How awesome to have a sweetener that dissolved easily in drinks and could even be used in baking? Minus a little after-taste issue, it was a pretty good alternative to sugar.
So we used it, and frequently for a while. One of our biggest culprits was Stevia sweetened lemonades that my oldest daughter loved. I thought it was “healthy” so I didn’t really monitor how much she could tolerate. Usually, one or two a day was what she was drinking. This continued for a month or more and as she continued to drink it we noticed her complaining frequently of her legs hurting. Over and over I would hear her say, “my legs hurt mommy.” She was also becoming more sluggish, even falling asleep on a five minute drive to preschool.
I first just pushed it off as growing pains, but as the weeks continued I started to get more concerned. One day I asked my mom her opinion and she stated the obvious, that you would have thought a nutritionist would have picked up on…it’s easy to miss the obvious in your own life, right? She asked what I had changed in her diet. DING, DING, DING the lightbulb went off. The lemonade! That was it, it had to be. So after that realization I started to do some research into Stevia and I found my answer.
Here are my findings on Stevia and why it may not be beneficial to everyone as originally thought. This is why we have quit Stevia for good.
DISCLAIMER: I do realize that in the nutrition world this article may present backlash. I am not trying to put Stevia in the same category as man-made sweeteners but do want everyone to realize that just because it is “natural” doesn’t mean that everyone should and can handle it. We can’t put everyone in the same nutritional “box” and thus have to look at each case person to person. I want to bring light to some of the issues we experienced to help others who may be going through the same thing. I hope that this can help someone’s body heal properly. Others may go on to enjoy Stevia without any negative health consequences and that is great. Just listen to your body!
It’s natural, but what are the side effects?
First, lets start here with the basics. Just because it is natural, doesn’t mean it is safe. Technically Stevia is an herb and while herbs do grow from the ground we must realize that many are having a side effects on our bodies. Some positive and others negative. Yes, there are side effects associated with herbal supplementation that you need to be aware of.
Stevia taxes the adrenals:
Another response to Stevia that some experience and also why it is beneficial in diabetic patients is the hypoglycemic effect Stevia can have. Experiencing a sweet taste from a food that is not going to provide glucose confuses our body’s sugar-handling process. Eating a sugar-free sweetener like Stevia can trick the body into a state of hypoglycemia.
As Kate, from Nutrition by Nature states:
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, muscle glycogen, protein or body tissue) to bring blood glucose back up.
As I mentioned above, Stevia isn’t going to affect everyone’s blood sugar the same way or to the same degree. Some are not going to experience the blood sugar drop, while others may and thus also experience the increase in stress hormones. Apparently, my family suffers from the hypoglycemic effect with headaches, muscle cramps and fatigue.
As Lauren from Empowered Sustenance states:
The frequent release of the stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) in response to the Stevia-induced hypoglycemia can be damaging to our adrenal glands and overall health. These stress hormones are designed to be utilized when we need to be in a fight-or-flight response, not when we are eating a meal. The consequence to increased cortisol; suppressed immune system, increased inflammation, increased abdominal fat and lower thyroid function, just to name a few.
Stevia has a hormonal structure:
The last findings I will present include the chemicals responsible for the sweet taste of Stevia. These are known as the steviol glycosides. There are at least ten different steviol glycosides present in the Stevia plant. The purified version or manufactured form of Stevia often isolates one or two of these steviol glycosides.
Steviol glycosides are structurally very similar to the plant hormones gibberellin and kaurene. This means that yes, Stevia has a hormone structure hence why there have been few studies showing that it can act as a mutagen and may increase the risk of cancer (controversial of course, but anytime we ingest a hormone-like structure there is bound to be some problems). Regardless of whether Stevia causes genetic mutations, we should still take caution in this, especially those with an autoimmune disease in which hormones have a dramatic impact on disease development and progression.
Stevia feeds our sweet addiction:
And lets be honest, people use Stevia for the sweet taste only feeding our addiction to sweet foods. Constantly consuming sweet things will never allow your body to adjust to a normal, real food lifestyle as your taste preferences will always be geared towards sugar. My goal is to crave healthy food and have natural sugar sources be satisfying. Thus, I prefer our taste preferences to be geared more towards healthy fats (what I want my body to burn as energy) as opposed to constantly being caught up in sugar. What’s the best way to do this? Limit the exposure to sweet things, creating a change towards more real food. Kick the cravings, kick the habit, kick the addiction.
My advice, if you use it and don’t experience negative consequences, still use it in moderation. Even though it doesn’t have “calories” it is still sweet and still potentially addictive. Most importantly LISTEN TO YOUR BODY! It knows more than any health claim on the market. You are your own person, cherish it and respect it.
I will end this post with Mayo Clinic’s advice towards Stevia:
“Because of its blood sugar-lowering and blood pressure-lowering potential, the sweetener Stevia should be evaluated first on an individual basis, before being regularly used by anyone suffering from hypoglycemia, or general glucose tolerance problems. Feedback has been mixed, with Stevia being well tolerated by some, but less so (i.e. aggravated low blood sugar symptoms) by others.”
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Here are some additional sources for more information:
Atteh JO, et al. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr (Berl). 2008 Dec; 92(6):640-9.
Schardt, David. Stevia a Bittersweet Tale.
Brusick DJ. A critical review of the genetic toxicity of steviol and steviol glycosides. Food Chem Toxicol. 2008 Jul;46 Suppl 7:S83-91.
Mazzei Planas G and Kuć J. Contraceptive properties of Stevia rebaudiana. Science. 1968 Nov 29;162(3857):1007.
Melis MS Effects of chronic administration of Stevia rebaudiana on fertility in rats Journal of Ethnopharmacology 1999 Nov 67(2):157–161
Melis MS. Chronic administration of aqueous extract of Stevia rebaudiana in rats: renal effects. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 1995. July 47(3):129–134
Oliveira-Filho RM et al. Chronic administration of aqueous extract of Stevia rebaudiana (Bert.) Bertoni in rats: Endocrine effects. General Pharmacology: The Vascular System. 1989. 20(2):187–191