You can't trick the brain when it comes to sweets.
Lunch Hour Lesson #22
Rather than dragging it out, I’ll just just answer this question right now: Are they better than sugar? Unfortunately, no. Just as there is no way to look at a donut and know if it is sweetened with sugar, stevia, or aspartame, the brain doesn’t know either. Here’s how it plays out.
We are wired to prefer sweetness first. As babies, we consume breastmilk, which is sweet. As we grow and mature, our palates grow and mature as well.
But, the palate will only get a well-rounded education, so to speak, if it is exposed repeatedly and consistently to the other four tastes: saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and umami (savoriness).
In the United States, most adult palates are tuned to prefer high levels of sweetness over other tastes, because it is what we come in contact with the most in our food.
This could be brushed off as a simple preference issue – we like sweet, other cultures prefer sour. But unfortunately, preference for sweet tastes leads to us eating more sugar, which is detrimental to health. My very first lunch hour lesson went into detail about this.
As the dangers of too much sugar have become more well-known, we’ve sought a way to maintain the sweet taste without adding sugar (glucose, calories).
In the early 1980’s, artificial sweeteners like NutraSweet® and Equal®, which contain aspartame, came onto the scene, and were touted as a way to help people lose weight. Hence their use in diet sodas.
But it did not work, at all. In fact, has been a cruel experiment on our population, because those who were already trying to lose weight ended up gaining more and more over time.
By now you’re probably wondering if stevia, mannitol, xylitol, and other “natural” non-calorie sweeteners should be put in the same boat as artificial sweeteners, when compared to just eating sugar.
Whatever I eat, I choose it consciously, I enjoy it thoroughly, and then I let it go.
Well, yes and no. They are healthier alternatives to aspartame because they don’t have researched links to gut problems, migraines, heart disease, and cancer. However, they still affect our sweet-sensing pathways the same way and can lead to blood sugar problems.
Why would this be? There isn’t any sugar in stevia-sweetened chocolate, so how could it be contributing to weight gain and sugar cravings?
Modern research and understanding of the brain and metabolism reveals three major reasons why:
- The brain thinks the fake sugar is real, meaning it expects glucose and calories to come in, and when it doesn’t get it, it triggers cravings for food.
- The body will produce an insulin response because the tongue signaled that something sweet was coming, whether or not that something sweet contained actual glucose.
- Non-nutritive sweeteners also upregulate your taste for sweetness, because they’re 200+ times sweeter than sugar.
All this means that consuming sweeteners makes the problems with insulin resistance, diabetes, and weight gain worse.
There’s no getting around the issue – if you want to improve any health issues related to sugar, you have lower your preference for sweets. Period.
You can do this by choosing mildly sweet foods that have lots of vitamins and minerals, and also do have some calories, like blackstrap molasses, honey, and fruit. Just know that the more you consume, the more you’ll want.
Search your cabinets for products that contain stevia, mannitol, and xylitol. Most are considered “health foods”. Consume these products with the same restraint as you would those with sugar.