Is Sugar Really That Bad For You?
The not-so-sweet truth
Around here, we talk a lot about foods that your healthy gut needs to thrive, including yogurt, fruits and veggies, whole grains, and more. However, we also believe in enjoying life, and that means no food should be totally off the table, from pizza to banana splits.
With that said, your gut has a complicated and not-so-great relationship with one type of food: sugar. We’re talking about added sugar, not the kind that occurs naturally in fruit and milk.
We dove into the research to see how sugar impacts your microbiome.
And keep reading to the end because we’ve rounded up some practical tips that can help you cut down on your day-to-day consumption. (Spoiler Alert: No one around here is going to make you give up your favorite sweet treats.)
How Your Body Responds To Sugar
According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes 22 to 30 teaspoons of sugar each day. While that may not sound any alarms initially, it’s important to remember how your body responds to consuming sugar. From minor inconveniences like affecting your skin’s appearance to increasing the risk of life-threatening conditions like diabetes, consistently consuming too much sugar is kind of a big deal.
When it comes to processing the sugar you consume, your liver is responsible for breaking it down into glucose and fructose. When sugar consumption is at a normal level, our livers are able to break down and store that energy as needed. But when you consistently consume too much refined sugar the liver simply can’t keep up and eventually begins turning glycogen into fat and could even lead to a fatty liver. "Your liver metabolizes sugar the same way as alcohol, and converts dietary carbohydrates to fat," says Dr. Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Over time, this can lead to a greater accumulation of fat, which may turn into fatty liver disease, a contributor to diabetes, which raises your risk for heart disease.
Long term excessive sugar consumption may be linked to insulin resistance. Which is the initial red flag for many health issues like metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Once your liver has broken down the sugar you consume into glucose and fructose it can be used as energy. In order for them to enter your cells, insulin is produced by the pancreas. When your sugar consumption is in a normal range, it is all smooth sailing. When you consistently consume too much sugar, the cells can become resistant to insulin, causing your pancreas to start pumping out even more insulin. If over consumption continues, your pancreas simply cannot keep up and your blood sugar levels could soar.
Your liver and pancreas aren’t the only organs that would prefer you reduce your sugar intake. Research indicates that a high-sugar diet significantly increases your risk of heart problems. One study spent 15 years following people whose daily consumption of sugar made up at least 25% of their calories and found that they were TWICE AS LIKELY to die from heart disease than those that consumed less than 10% of their calories from sugar. This could be because large amounts of sugar may stress the heart and cause inflammation of the artery linings. Fructose in the blood can also lower your good cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of stroke or heart attack.
Why Sugar is Bad for Your Gut
If your diet is on the sweet side, you are not alone. Research shows that nearly 90 percent of Americans still exceed the U.S. Dietary recommendation for added sugar.
So, it’s probably not a shock to hear that high-sugar diets can have negative health consequences. Refined added sugar can lead to a myriad of chronic diseases, from obesity to heart disease.
Researchers are learning that gut health can take a big hit from high sugar consumption, affecting weight loss efforts, immunity, stress relief, and the list goes on.
Diets high in sugar increase chronic inflammation, which has, in turn, been linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease and cancer.
This inflammation irritates the gut, damaging the protective mucus layer and decreasing the number of good bacteria. One study suggested that a consistent high-sugar diet can condition the gut and negatively impact its composition overtime.
Why is that bad? Well, for one thing, it can affect your overall health, and in particular, immunity. A new study found that high sugar consumption leads to a loss of important immune cells.
Why It’s So Hard To Cut Down
We likely don’t have to tell you that sugary foods taste great and make you feel good. You may have also noticed that once you have one sugary treat, you find yourself wanting more. You can blame dopamine for that. Brain scans taken while eating sugary foods show that the same area of the brain stimulated by alcohol consumption lights up with sugar consumption. The cells of the brain not only want more because they see it as a reward, but they also need more to function. This sugary cycle makes sugar a habit that’s hard to kick.
All right, people, enough with the doom and gloom, let’s talk about action! Slowly reducing your sugar consumption can not only help you break that sugar cycle but can also improve your overall health. Have a look at our practical tips below.
4 Ways to Cut Down on Sugar
First things first, before we dive into some tips for cutting down on the sugar in your day-to-day life… We’re not big on restricting and creating unhealthy relationships with food. We are big on being aware of what we are putting into our bodies and how our body will respond. Sweet treats are an important part of life from creating memories while decorating gingerbread houses during the holidays, to that moment a busy mom takes for herself to enjoy a square of chocolate after the kids go to sleep. Sugar is not something you should fear, but it is something you should consume mindfully.
View Sodas As A Treat
If you are one of many that have at least one soda a day, that is an easy way to cut out an average of 8 teaspoons of sugar. While we’re not saying you can never have a soda, we are saying it may be worth swapping soda or sweetened bevies with seltzers or herbal teas. Or try one of favorite swaps of plain water infused with frozen berries or citrus slices.
Watch for Hidden Sugar
Sugar is hidden in so many processed foods, from bread to plant-based milks and condiments, like ketchup. There are so many sneaky sources of added sugar. And don’t think you get a free pass with artificial sweeteners that are equally lousy for your gut. Supposedly healthy items can be laden with sugar; we’re looking at you granola bars and sports drinks. Be a label reader.
Cereal, yogurt, oatmeal and similar foods may not be the same without sweeteners like sugar, honey, or syrup. Try topping them with your favorite fruits for a kick of sweetness without the processed sugar. Or the next time you have an urge for a sweet afternoon snack, consider a piece of beautiful, luscious fruit. It may be hard at the beginning, but it really can satisfy a craving for something sweet and will help you break out of the sugar cycle.
Like we already said, we’re not big on being restrictive but in the case of sugar, it’s good to be aware of what you’re putting into your body. Be mindful of how much sugar you are consuming daily and instead of worrying about how much sugar you have to cut out of your diet, focus on fueling your body with nutrient dense, whole foods. Before you know it, you’ll find that you don’t feel the need to reach for that 3pm candy bar.