You don’t have to give up sweetness on your low-carb diet. With a few natural alternatives to sugar, you can keep enjoying your favorite snacks and desserts while you drop pounds and get healthy. Find out what sugar-free sweeteners you should be using on your low-carb diet and which ones to avoid at all costs.
Sugar: Enemy Number One
Lots of great things happened in the 1980s. MTV, The Walkman, personal computers and cell phones entered our lives and changed everything forever. But not all changes were positive. Thanks to the 1970’s invention of high fructose corn syrup and the government’s recommendation to eat a low-fat diet, Americans haven’t eaten the same way since.
Dr. Arthur Agatston, M.D. (creator of the South Beach Diet) explains in his new book, The New Keto-Friendly South Beach Diet, that food manufacturers started removing healthy fats and replaced them with sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils. With an increase in sugar and refined carbohydrates comes blood sugar swings, less satiety, the desire to graze constantly and the consumption of supersized meals, he explains. Because of this, our insulin levels are continuously elevated, causing hunger and preventing fat loss.
The day you decide to begin the South Beach Diet, you’re taking steps to not only lose weight but also reverse the sugar cycle we’ve been trapped in for decades. It’s not an easy thing to do, considering sugar is virtually everywhere and because our bodies crave it like a drug. That’s why you’ll keep your net carb intake at or below 50 grams per day. You’ll enjoy non-starchy vegetables, healthy fats and high-quality proteins. Sugar is not recommended—even those found naturally in fruit because it’s important to stop the cravings.
Here’s a helpful tidbit to get you through: Spices can give you the sensation of sweetness without a single grain of sugar. Vanilla extract in your morning coffee smells sweet and can help you keep that same sense of normalcy in your daily routine. You might also try some walnuts and cinnamon in your yogurt or a spoonful of peanut butter when the munchies strike.
If you’re looking for a convenient grab-and-go option like bars, snacks and shakes, be careful and choose the right ones. They should be sweetened with one of these three zero calorie, zero carbohydrate sweeteners: erythritol, monk fruit or stevia. They sound weird but they’re what our doc, Dr. Dr. Arthur Agatston, M.D., recommends. Plus, they’re naturally derived and all considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration. Learn more about these sweeteners and how they fit into your healthy lifestyle.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with our low-carb guide to sweeteners:
In the world of sugar substitutes, many sweeteners are classified as sugar alcohols. Erythritol is our favorite out of this unique group due to its versatility, taste and lack of side effects. According to Healthline, erythritol is a natural byproduct of fermented fruit. On a commercial production scale, it’s made from fermented wheat or cornstarch. Other common sugar alcohols that you may have seen include xylitol, sorbitol and maltitol.
The common concern with sugar alcohols is the digestive symptoms they can potentially cause. Healthline explains that they pass through the digestive system without being absorbed. Once they reach the colon, they are fermented by bacteria which creates gas and bloating. But erythritol is different than the others. Because erythritol is able to be absorbed into the blood before reaching the small intestine, these side effects are often avoided. “It circulates in the blood for a while, until it is eventually excreted unchanged in the urine. About 90% of erythritol is excreted this way,” says Healthline.
Erythritol contains just 6 percent of the calories found in real sugar, with 70 percent of the sweetness. It does not increase insulin or blood sugar levels and has been shown to improve the health of blood vessels, decreasing the risk of heart disease, says Healthline. In your supermarket, you can typically find these sweeteners in granulated, powdered and even brown sugar form.
The stevia products you find on the grocery store shelf are made from a refined stevia leaf extract called rebaudioside A (Reb-A), says Healthline. Most products are a blend of stevia and erythritol, dextrose or maltodextrin. Stevia can have a bitter, licorice aftertaste and is about 200 times sweeter than regular sugar.
According to Healthline, studies show that stevia may help to decrease insulin, blood sugar levels and cholesterol. However, people with diabetes should take caution when consuming stevia that contains dextrose or maltodextrin. These ingredients contain calories and carbohydrates that may need to be accounted for.
Prefer a less processed option? You can grow your own stevia leaves at home and use them to sweeten foods and hot beverages—something people from Central and South America have done for centuries, says Good Housekeeping. Look for cuttings in the herb section at your local nursery. Stevia likes cool, summer weather, strong sunlight and likes sharing pots with other plants. Harvest the leaves at the end of September or beginning of October. Please note that raw stevia leaf should be avoided if you are pregnant or have a medical condition, says Healthline. As always, speak to your doctor before consuming stevia or making any dietary changes to ensure it is safe for you.
One year ago, you would have been hard pressed to find monk fruit sweetener in a gourmet supermarket. However, today the zero calorie, zero carbohydrate sweetener can be found nearly everywhere.
According to Healthline, Monk fruit (also known as lo han guo) originates from southern China. It’s a small green melon that is “named after the monks who first cultivated it centuries ago,” they explain. Don’t bother combing the produce department for the actual fruit; it’s quite difficult to grow, harvest and dry—not to mention import and process, says Healthline.
The sweetness of monk fruit is a result of “unique antioxidants called mogrosides,” says Healthline. Monk fruit is 150 to 250 times sweeter than sugar and is typically blended with another product like erythritol to town down the sweetness and cut costs. This sweetener can be more expensive than other varieties and is found in powdered, granulated and liquid form. As with stevia and erythritol, monk fruit does not impact blood sugar or insulin levels, making it an essential low-carb sweetener for your pantry.
The Other Guys
So, what about sucralose, aspartame and saccharin? A 2014 study, published in Nature, suggests that the three artificial sweeteners not only raise blood sugar levels, but do it by altering gut microorganisms, mainly bacteria, that help with the immune system and general nutrition. Additionally, artificial sweeteners have been rumored to cause certain kinds of cancers in rats and laboratory mice. However, the National Cancer Institute says the sweeteners do not have the same effects on humans and maintain their FDA “safe” rating.
If it’s all the same to us, we’ll stick with what the doc recommended. Erythritol, stevia and monk fruit have shown little to no side effects and may have therapeutic and potential healing effects on the body.