What’s the holidays without sugar? I think most people would outwardly say that their life and waistline would be dramatically better off minus all the cookies and sweets this time of year. However, inwardly I know most of those same people would nostalgically miss a time filled with some really great homemade pastries and baked goods. It leaves us all both loathing and secreting stealing cookies from a gifted tray at work when no one is looking. Little by little, the sugar totals increase along with the number of holiday parties. And that, my friends, can spell total disaster!
I say ‘disaster’ because sugar is just sooo bad for your body. Small quantities are fine, but even our current idea of ‘small’ is probably much too large for our own collective good. Sugar is highly acidic to the body, creates systemic inflammation, makes blood sugar go haywire, feeds gnarly bacteria and yeast in your digestive system, reduces your body’s immune system which opens the door to colds and the flu, and will leave you feeling exhausted, sluggish and downright crappy. Oh, and then you’ll be jonesing for it too…because its incredibly addictive to boot! No wonder everyone gets sick during and after the holidays!
Alternative to Sugar
What to do? Well, there’s many alternative sweeteners out there that can help your cause, but one in particular is ideal because it doesn’t inflame the body or mess with your insulin levels. Oh, and it comes from a plant. Meet stevia- an herb that has a sweet taste, but contains no sugar. There’s no trick or slight of hand here. The plant merely tastes sweet. So sweet, in fact, that you’ll need to use a lot less of it than you will sugar or else you’ll be in for a wicked taste-surprise.
I was first introduced to stevia years ago by my Nutritionist Samantha Grant who helped me to understand the benefit of varying sweeteners. She suggests it to clients “because it has no calories and, to [her] knowledge, no studies show dangerous side effects making it is a great alternative.” Though you may see many different ‘alternative’ sugar alcohol sweeteners such as xylitol and sorbitol on the market, “many people suffer from gas” as a result of consuming them because they can irritate the digestive system. “This does not happen with stevia,” states Grant.
When I was going through my own sugar detox in October, I really had to make friends with stevia once and for all because it can be quite difficult to just go cold turkey from having an abundance of that ‘sweet taste’ in your diet. This is what most people don’t quite get: sugar isn’t always about sugar. Sometimes it’s about the taste. To clarify, there are five distinct tastes which are used to describe foods: pungent, sour, salty, bitter and sweet. The American diet has pretty much gone overboard with the salty and sweet tastes which has led to steady increases of each in just about everything that we eat. Body, Love, and Cravings Health Coach Richele Henry agrees that “after doing a week-long sugar detox, the taste buds change and stevia could be a palatable upgrade to other sweeteners used prior to detoxing.” The reason is that stevia is “100 times sweeter than sugar and some find it to have a slightly bitter aftertaste.” Thus stevia may not entirely please the palate if you don’t allow yourself time to acclimate to it as well as let go of the expectation that it will taste the same as sugar.
Is Stevia Safe?
Stevia most likely has its own health ups and downs which science is now looking into as its popularity grows. It appears that most people in the health and wellness industry seem to echo Henry’s sentiment that “for people who have blood sugar issues, stevia could be an appropriate sweetener considering there is virtually no impact on the blood sugar.” Melissa Hillegass, a Type 1 Diabetes researcher and author of The Delicate Place blog, hesitantly agrees and wisely suggests that its good to stick with moderation rather than go overboard on any one particular food or sweetener. Though she’s waiting on more definitive research, she passed along a recent study published in the journal Appetite reporting that researchers concluded that stevia “significantly reduced both glucose and insulin levels compared to either sucrose or aspartame…suggesting stevia may assist with glucose regulation.” And another study has verified that stevia won’t break down into a more toxic compound as some had feared when used in carbonated beverages.
I’m certainly not a cheerleader for any one food, however I do believe that stevia could potentially be a decent sweetener added to your sweetener repertoire. I personally mix and match. You’d find me alternating stevia with raw honey, yacon syrup, agave, black strap molasses, palm sugar and brown rice syrup. I don’t use them all the time, but feel that by having a wide selection will help prevent from overusing/consuming any one sweetener. And some pair better with certain foods and drinks than others.
Creative Stevia Uses
Whether it comes to baking, soups or just creating alternatives to sugary favorites, stevia seems to be a winner all around. Grant’s young son is even a fan as she mixes stevia with his unsweetened Chocolate almond milk so that he can get his ‘sweet’ fix without the sugar rush and end up bouncing off the walls. I even carry a container in my handbag so that I’m not ever stuck with the horrible choices on the table at a restaurant or at someone’s home for dinner. Stevia seems to last forever since you use so little and I’ve yet to come close to replacing the container of it that I started several months ago.
Lisa Rado, an Integrative Health Coach and founder of One Delicious Life, is what I’d consider a stevia expert. She has successfully used stevia many times over to shift clients away from sugar “who have a sweet tooth [so that they are] able to enjoy sweetened foods without the negative impacts of inflammation, high sugar and weight gain.” Rado notes that its been especially helpful “for those who feel they can’t kick the soda habit.” She instructs clients on how to create “their own soda – sparking water with flavored stevia. Vanilla stevia makes a tasty cream soda!” You can also use it to sweeten plain yogurt, coffee, tea, oatmeal, soups, etc.
If you love to bake and are gearing up to do some serious baking this holiday season, stevia is definitely a great alternative. “I use the English Toffee or Chocolate flavor from SweetLeaf when I am baking…usually with some Xylitol or brown sugar,” shares Grant. “It cuts the calories and helps with blood sugar control.” But there’s a trip to making the substitutions between these sweeteners that you’ll need to keep in mind when altering recipes. You can find a useful conversion chart here. Karina Allrich from Glutenfreegoddess.com offers some great times for replacing sugar with alternative sweeteners like stevia on her blog in a post called Sugar Blues: Gluten-free Baking without Sugar.
Personally, I’ve found it to be pivotal in breaking the bad habit of eating sweets at night. That seemed to be my weakest moment that would get filled with some sort of sugar-filled fix. However, I came to enjoy a warm mug of Rooibos Chai tea from Yogi Teas with some unsweetened almond milk and stevia. It was the right mix of everything that I crave in comfort food and it got me away from cookies and ice cream. For me, this was huge and helped me to sleep better and thus feel better in the morning.
All this info is great, but I’m sure you’re wondering how to really make it happen? Well, it all starts with picking a good brand. Rado suggests Sweet Leaf or Stevita which is her favorite choice because “it comes in a smaller bottle, is cheaper” and offers the flavored liquid drops that make ‘stevia soda’ possible. Some of the following flavors areavailable: Chocolate, Vanilla, Peppermint, Cinnamon, Grape, Peach, Strawberry, Lime, Orange, Lemon and Mango. Grant’s favorite is PURE stevia since there are no fillers added to the product, though she cautions people against using “too much or a brand that isn’t good” in order to avoid experiencing a bitter aftertaste.
Also keep in mind that stevia is a green leaf often found in stores being sold as a white powder which has obviously been incredibly processed. Henry adds that stevia may “even [be] bleached to make it look similar to sugar.” Both Frontier and Navitas Naturals brands offer stevia in its more natural, less-processed, powdered form.