Your Microbiome on Sugar
The downside? Most types of sugar added to baked desserts and processed foods wreak havoc on our body’s systems, especially our microbiome. Our microbiome is the living collection of all the bacteria that reside in and on our body, and it is so important to our overall health that scientists have dubbed it another organ. The beneficial bacteria—also called probiotics—in our gut (where most of our microbes live) are responsible for supporting a variety of bodily functions, like supporting our immune system, maintaining our blood sugar levels already in a normal range, helping us absorb nutrients, and even calming our emotions. The bad news is that our modern lifestyles can deplete the friendly microbes that work so hard to keep us healthy. Antibacterial cleaners, antibiotics in food and as medicine, overzealous hygiene habits, contaminants in food, and even stress can all wear away at our delicate microbial balance, but one of the biggest microbiome disrupters is a diet full of sugary, processed foods. You see, the probiotics in our gut feed on prebiotics, which are plant-based fibers from whole foods like apples, onions, garlic, bananas, and oats. Can you guess what the bad guy bacteria like to eat? You guessed it—sugar! When we eat a high-sugar diet, the undesirable bacteria thrive and start to grow out of control, while our beneficial bacteria dwindle in number.In one study, mice fed a high-sugar diet showed reduced cognitive flexibility (the ability to switch between concepts) and impaired memory, all due to changes in gut microbiota1. We know that dietary sugar harms our microscopic friends in our gut and we’re going to talk about what we can do to keep them safe in the face of all of life’s dietary temptations. But first, let’s take a look at how our society became so sugar-crazed in the first place.
Sugar Industry Claims
If you’re wondering how—in this day and age—sugar is still such a ubiquitous part of so many of our foods, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, part of sugar’s continued popularity may be due to the sugar industry’s influence on nutrition research over the last several decades.
In the 1960s, the Sugar Research Foundation paid two well-known Harvard nutritionists to publish reviews downplaying sugar’s negative role in heart health3. — This stuff is true.. are you shocked?
Fortunately, the truth about sugar’s impacts is coming to light, thanks in part to newly uncovered documents. The findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, show how the trade association sought to influence and manipulate findings to keep sugar out of the news4.
Now that the truth is out, we can continue to uncover sugar’s true effects on all our bodily systems.
The Many Types of Sugar
Of course, you may not be able to avoid all sugar in your diet, but it helps to know the different kinds of sugar rampant in our processed foods so you can make the healthiest decisions for your family. Commonly used sweeteners include:
• Simple sugars. Simple sugars—like sucrose (table sugar), fructose (naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables), and glucose—are carbohydrates found naturally in some whole foods and added as sweeteners to processed foods.
• High-fructose corn syrup. HFCS is a corn-based liquid sweetener made primarily of fructose and a small amount of glucose. Often used in place of sucrose, HFCS is the “bad boy” of the added sugar world, blamed for everything from weight gain to issues with heart health.
• Artificial sweeteners. Aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin are all examples of non-caloric artificial sweeteners that are often added to processed foods. Besides being toxic chemicals, artificial sweeteners deplete your microbiome and negatively affect your glucose metabolism5.
• Sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol) do contain a negligible amount of calories and carbohydrates, but don’t cause dental issues like regular sugar. Sugar alcohols can be okay in moderation, but large amounts can lead to bloating and diarrhea.
• Natural sweeteners. If you must use a sweetener, natural sources make the healthiest choices and you can adjust nearly any recipe to swap out normal table sugar in favor of a more nutritious option. Honey, agave, maple syrup, dates, coconut sugar, stevia, and fruit juice are some of the top choices when it comes to natural sweeteners.
Before you (sigh) run to your pantry to throw out every last ounce of sugar-containing food, remember that some sweet treats can actually benefit your microbiome. Honey, for example, is a great prebiotic, and dark chocolate (with at least 70% cocoa) provides molecules that our good gut bacteria can ferment into anti-inflammatory compounds to benefit our immune system and overall health 6.
If you’re wondering what to do with all of the sugar in your life, the most important takeaway is to start reading ingredient labels and do your best to only choose natural sugars, and only as an occasional treat. If you’re up for a challenge learn all about improving gut health, cutting the sugar cravings, stop the embarrassing bloat and pain, recognizing signs of an unhealthy gut, and the importance that gut health plays in your well-being, you’ve come to the right spot. You’ll want to join the 21 DAY GUT HEALTH CHALLENGE
1. Magnusson, K., Hauck, L., Jeffrey, B., Elias, V., Humphrey, A., Nath, R., . . . Bermudez, L. (2015). Relationships between diet-related changes in the gut microbiome and cognitive flexibility. Neuroscience, 300, 128-140.
2. Clarke, S. F., Murphy, E. F., O’sullivan, O., Lucey, A. J., Humphreys, M., Hogan, A., . . . Cotter, P. D. (2014). Exercise and associated dietary extremes impact on gut microbial diversity. Gut, 63(12), 1913-1920.
3. Mcgandy, R. B., Hegsted, D., & Stare, F. J. (1967). Dietary Fats, Carbohydrates and Atherosclerotic Vascular Disease. New England Journal of Medicine, 277(4), 186-192.
4. Kearns, C. E., Schmidt, L. A., & Glantz, S. A. (2016). Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research. JAMA Internal Medicine. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5394
5. 8. Suez, J., Korem, T., Zeevi, D., Zilberman-Schapira, G., Thaiss, C. A., Maza, O., . . . Elinav, E. (2014). Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature, 514(7521), 181-186.
6. Finley, J. (2014, March). Impact of the Microbiome on Cocoa Polyphenolic Compounds. Findings presented at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, Dallas, TX.