If you have diabetes, you know that managing your condition requires great care in monitoring your medications, how you exercise, and (perhaps most importantly) what you eat.
This includes being especially aware of how much sugar (especially added sugar!) is in your diet.
While many popular sugar substitutes have emerged over the years, including Splenda (sucralose) and Equal (aspartame), recently one of the most popular is stevia, made from the plant of the same name.
But what is stevia, and is it a healthy sugar alternative for people with diabetes? What are the benefits and what are the risks?
In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know about this popular sugar alternative and how (and if!) you should include it in your diet.
What is stevia?
Stevia is a zero-calorie sweetener with no nutritional value, made from steviol glycosides obtained from the leaves of the Stevia Rebaudiana plant.
The plant is grown mainly in Brazil, Paraguay, Japan and China. China is currently the largest exporter of stevia.
Stevia is approximately 200-300 times sweeter than traditional table sugar and has been used for centuries as a sweetener and herbal remedy.
The FDA considers both Rebaudioside A and other steviol glycosides such as stevioside to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS).
Most stevia sweeteners on the market are a blend of stevia with low or zero calorie sweeteners such as erythritol, but some are also blended with dextrose, so it’s important to read the nutrition label.
People, especially diabetics, use stevia in products such as coffee, tea, oatmeal and fruit as an extra sweet dessert.
Is stevia safe to eat?
According to the FDA, the safe daily intake for humans is 4 milligrams (mg) per kilogram (kg) of body weight. When used to sweeten foods, it is safe for human consumption.
While some studies have shown potential side effects in laboratory animals (mainly mice) when large amounts of the extract are consumed, most of these studies have since been disproven.
Negative side effects of eating stevia
However, you may experience several side effects if you eat stevia. Some side effects may include:
Gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
People who use stevia excessively (and are sensitive to sugar alcohol) may experience issues such as bloating, nausea, indigestion, diarrhea, cramping, and vomiting.
If you experience these symptoms, you may need to stop eating stevia or talk to your doctor about the symptoms you are experiencing.
Low blood pressure
Stevia acts as a vasodilator, which causes blood vessels to dilate and lower blood pressure.
While this is usually seen as a benefit, long-term use of stevia (especially if you currently have lower blood pressure or are taking blood pressure medications) should be discussed with your doctor.
If you are currently struggling with high blood pressure, it may actually benefit you if you start consuming stevia regularly.
Steviol glycosides, a type of steroid, can affect the hormones of the endocrine system.
A study conducted in 2016 showed that when human sperm were exposed to steviol glycosides, there was an increase in the production of progesterone, which can be harmful to human health.
Talk to your doctor if you have these concerns. Common side effects of increased progesterone production include restlessness, agitation, breast swelling and tenderness, depression, fatigue, and weight gain.
What are the benefits of stevia?
However, for people with diabetes, eating stevia can have many benefits. Here are the benefits of consuming this extract, especially if it replaces traditional table sugar:
Better blood sugar levels
Studies have shown that stevia does not provide any calories or carbohydrates to the human diet and has no effect on either blood sugar or insulin response, which is a huge win for people with diabetes.
You can sweeten something (for example, oatmeal) without adding extra carbs, which can not only improve your blood sugar but make diabetes management easier overall, which is a huge win!
Help in losing weight
Replacing all added sugar in your diet with stevia can help you lose weight. Sugar has 4 calories per gram (as opposed to 0 calories per gram for stevia), which can add up quickly.
If you replace all those carbs and calories with a sugar-free alternative, you can lose weight.
However, if you feel like you’re “cashing” an unhealthy food item by eating something “healthier” with stevia instead of sugar, eating stevia for weight loss may not be effective.
Overall, it’s best to just watch the amount of added sugar and calories you eat, and replace all sugar-sweetened foods and drinks with unsweetened versions or sugar substitutes (like stevia) if you want to lose weight.
While stevia in particular has yet to be studied, research shows that aspartame can help people lose weight by replacing sugar in their diets.
Improvement of dental health
Replacing sugar with stevia can also help keep your teeth and gums healthier! Sugar is bad for oral and dental health; it causes unnecessary cavities and premature tooth decay and can even contribute to gingivitis.
Stevia has been found to reduce the formation of bacteria in the mouth, helping to prevent cavities and gum disease. In fact, it is often added as a safe sweetener to mouthwashes and toothpaste!
May help improve skin health
The antibacterial properties of stevia can also help keep your skin healthy by helping treat conditions like eczema and dermatitis.
Topical application of stevia stops the spread of bacteria on the surface and acts as a steroid, bringing relief to many people suffering from these conditions.
Stevia, a plant extract derived from the plant of the same name, has been used in medicine around the world for centuries as a natural sweetener, tonic and ointment in herbal medicine.
Contains no sugar, carbohydrates, calories or artificial ingredients.
It is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and is an excellent sugar substitute for people with diabetes or for people who want to lose weight, eat healthier or take better care of their dental health.
People typically add stevia to beverages such as coffee and tea, to products such as oatmeal and breakfast cereals, add it to fruit or to homemade desserts to make them less high in carbohydrates and calories.
However, some people may experience negative side effects such as gastrointestinal issues and lower blood pressure (which can be a problem if you already have low blood pressure or are taking blood pressure medications), and stevia may act as an endocrine disruptor.
Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about including stevia in your diet.
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