The human body is designed to crave the foods it needs to survive. In the wild, we would have had scant resources and thus we would follow our instincts in order to hunt out the nutrients that we needed to survive as well as the pure energy that we needed to fuel our activities.
We were constantly on the go during this time in our evolutionary history. Primitive man was always either hunting, gathering, fighting or exploring new lands and thus the main thing that was needed in the diet was energy.
When you’re constantly trekking through woods and chasing antelope, getting fat is really not much of a concern! Thus the body evolved to seek out sweet foods like fruits and other sources of sugar that would provide us with the energy that we needed in order to carry on engaging in those activities; not to mention doing basic things like breathing, blinking and sleeping!
What was that great source of energy? Fruit! And as it happened, fruit was also very high in nutrients like vitamins and minerals, making it incredibly beneficial for us and very much worth seeking out.
Meanwhile, the plants were struggling with the precise same problem: trying to stay alive and thrive in a world that was out to kill them. And as such, they too had to evolve to find ways to thrive. They did this by taking advantage of our lust for sweetness. By making their fruits even sweeter, they could put us to work like good little worker bees – we’d seek out their fruits and distribute their seeds! It was a symbiotic relationship and one where everyone won.
Fast forward to 2017 and you have a problem. We are nowhere near as active as we once were and yet we still have that same craving for sugar and sweetness driving us to fill our bodies with calories, to spike our blood sugar and to ruin our insulin sensitivity. Then there’s the fact that we’ve been able to extract pure sugar and to give it to ourselves in huge doses with none of the beneficial nutrients. It should come as no surprise that so many of us are obese or that we regularly develop diabetes and other issues associated with excess sugar.
But the craving for sugar is hardwired into us. It’s part of our DNA and it’s not going anywhere. So what do we do? One option is to try turning to natural sweeteners…
A natural sweetener is something that tastes and works like sugar and that can help to make our food sweeter and tastier but that doesn’t have all the same negative health implications. Natural sweeteners are natural too by definition, meaning that they should come with a range of additional nutritional benefits.
Natural sweeteners include the likes of stevia, erythritol, xylitol and yacon syrup. But are they really good for us?
One thing to note is that across the board, natural sweeteners can actually cause issues with hunger and appetite. That’s because the body will register natural sweeteners in much the same way that it will register real sugar. It sees this as an influx of energy and assumes that said energy is coming from sugar. Thus, it will respond by releasing a surge of insulin, which in turn will work to absorb the sugar from your bloodstream and to store this as fat.
But of course, when you aren’t getting the sweetness from sugar, you don’t have extra glucose in the blood to be absorbed. That means that the body will store whatever little sugar is flowing through your blood and that in turn will leave you with an energy trough that can cause you to feel hungry later on and to want to eat more subsequently.
There are other potential issues with many of the purported natural sweeteners too. Stevia for example is extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana and has a number of health benefits. Stevia is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar with virtually no calories and it appears to be able to lower blood sugar levels in diabetics and even improve blood pressure.
But stevia is not perfect. It taxes the adrenal glands by releasing extra cortisol and adrenaline and it contains a number of additional ingredients that aren’t quite so good for us such as xylitol and dextrose. Then there’s the fact that stevia has a rather unpleasant aftertaste, which makes it a less-than-ideal alternative to sugar. Plus some preliminary studies have found links to a number of serious health issues such as cancer and infertility. A lot more research needs to be done here and it’s unlikely to be a significant risk for most people – but it is far from being the uber-healthy alternative to sugar that many people think it is!
So, what about erythritol? This is another low-calorie sweetener and sugar alcohol found naturally in some fruits. The good news is that erythritol doesn’t spike blood sugar or insulin levels and appears to be very safe.
But is it perfect? Again no. For one, it’s not truly natural – the erythritol you get in your food will come from industrial processes making it just as processed as any other sugar. Then there’s the fact that it can cause stomach upsets, digestive issues and diarrhea. And it can still trick the brain into feeling hungry when you’ve just eaten. Once again, it also has a bitter aftertaste that’s not as appealing as sugar.
While something like erythritol may have benefits over sugar, it still isn’t perfect and you shouldn’t treat it as though it is. There’s no ‘trick’ to getting sweet foods without the down sides and your best bet is instead to simply taper off of sweet foods and thereby reduce your sweet tooth.
What’s more is that sugar isn’t always the enemy. As with all things, it’s a matter of restraint and enjoying things in smaller doses. A little honey for example is a source of sugar that is packed with goodness and that’s probably much better for you than processed alternatives!