Sugar has a terrible reputation. Many link it to the rising incidence of obesity. Some believe you can get addicted to it. Others think that you absolutely must avoid it to stay healthy. Sugar in moderation is fine, but consuming excessive sugar can in fact lead to negative health consequences, including inflammation.
Sugar: What is it and How Can it Affect my Health?
Sugar is classified as a simple carbohydrate, meaning it only has 1-2 molecules in its chemical structure. Since the molecules are small, they are readily digested and absorbed into your bloodstream so your cells can use it for energy. When you eat a large amount of simple sugars, you quickly digest and absorb them which spikes your blood glucose (or blood sugar) levels. Your body responds by releasing insulin, a hormone that helps facilitate the movement of glucose into your cells. Once glucose enters your cells, blood sugar levels return to normal. However, constant consumption of simple sugars can cause something known as insulin resistance, where your cells become less sensitive to insulin. When this happens, blood sugar levels remain higher for longer. Elevated blood sugar can cause chronic low-grade inflammation(1).
Sugar and Inflammation: The Evidence
The effect of sugar on weight gain, inflammation and lipid metabolism has been studied extensively in both animals and humans. In healthy subjects, a low to moderate intake of sugar over a short period of time can:
- Affect the LDL (bad cholesterol) particle size
- May increase fasting blood glucose (blood sugar) levels and
- Has been shown to increase inflammatory markers (2,3).
Sugar can also cause our gut microbiome to shift and become less diverse. When this happens, the production of lipopolysaccharides (LPS) may increase. These endotoxins have been shown to increase gut permeability, and if they sneak through the gut lining and into the bloodstream, they may also trigger an inflammatory response (4,5).
The Skinny on Artificial Sweeteners
If regular sugar can trigger negative health effects, what about artificial sugars like aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), stevia (Truvia) and acesulfame potassium (Sweet One)? These are found in everything from diet soda and sugar-free candy, to yogurts and cereals. Although these are technically safe to consume, I would still try to cut back on these for the following reasons:
- These sweeteners are insanely sweet and can enhance your cravings and taste for sweet things.
- Multiple studies have linked artificial sugars to the development of type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, headaches, inflammation and cancer (6).
- Studies have also shown some of these sugars can disrupt and alter your gut microbiome and metabolism (6,7).
Can You Eat a Balanced Diet with Sugar?
You don’t have to cut all sugar out of your life if you are worried about your health or managing chronic inflammation. Here are a few tips to help you include sugar in a healthy way:
Focus on complex carbohydrates
Just because sugar is a carbohydrate doesn’t mean you have to eliminate all carbs. Focus on eating complex carbohydrates rather than simple carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, so they won’t spike your blood sugar. Additionally, complex carbohydrates have fiber, which helps to slow down digestion and can even help lower your cholesterol levels. They are also rich in essential vitamins and minerals. Complex carbs are found in unprocessed foods like whole grains, brown rice, quinoa, fruits, vegetables and legumes.
Limit your simple carbs
Simple carbs are known as refined carbs. These are found in processed foods like soda, baked goods, cereals, fruit juices and packaged cookies and crackers. Even foods like some breads and white rice are refined, meaning they underwent processing to strip out fiber and micronutrients.
Try to avoid artificial sugars
Artificial sugars have no calories but may have unintended consequences for your gut and overall health. If you have an addiction to sweet things, try to slowly wean yourself off of these foods. For instance, if you drink 1 can of diet soda every day, try to cut down by 1 each week until you are at zero.
Read nutrition labels for hidden sources of added sugar
Added sugars make their way into almost everything: condiments, sauces, yogurts, ready-to-eat cereals and even canned foods. Updated nutrition labels include a line item for added sugars. If it doesn’t, read the ingredients. Sugar can be listed as cane sugar or juice, maltose, dextrose, rice syrup and high fructose corn syrup. Ingredient labels are listed by weight, so if sugar is one of the first ingredients, you will know that food has a lot in it.
You can eat a balanced diet with sugar, but being mindful of what and how much sugar you are eating is important to manage inflammation and the onset of other chronic diseases. If you would like to learn more about how you can incorporate sugar into your diet, book a 15 minute discovery call with me or contact me.