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 a variety of health-promoting functions, like regulating our immune system, balancing our blood sugar, 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. At a time when prominent researchers were debating over whether sugar or fat could be implicated in the plethora of heart issues in America, the sugar industry lobbied to have fat take the fall, ushering in an era of low-fat diets—and ignorance about sugar’s true effects on our health.
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, try a 10-day sugar detox, during which you stay away from ALL sugar, including even naturally-occurring fruit sugar. This will help reset your system and your taste buds, making the natural treats you do choose even sweeter!
Caring for Your Microbiome in a Sugar-Crazed World
Besides keeping your sugar intake to a minimum and avoiding other common microbiome depleters, you can take several steps right now to help keep your microbiome intact through all of your sweet encounters.
1. Focus on your gut health from the inside out. Taking a high-quality, multi-strain probiotic supplement like Hyperbiotics PRO-15 should be your number one priority when it comes to supporting your microbiome in the face of the devastating effects of sugar. Probiotics will help replenish depleted beneficial bacteria to help crowd out the bad guys who feast on sugar in your gut.
2. Eat plenty of plant-based foods. A whole food, plant-based diet provides food and sustenance for your friendly microbes. Called prebiotics, these indigestible fibers are the perfect fuel for hard-working flora. Although most vegetables (and some fruits) provide prebiotic fibers, some of the best options are oats, onions, bananas, garlic, and Jerusalem artichoke.
3. Stay active and take time to relax. Studies show that people who are active have healthier microbiomes than those who are more sedentary, so plan to make exercise a daily priority2. Additionally, because stress can deplete your friendly flora, taking the time to consistently relax and unwind can keep your microbiome in tip top shape.
The reality is, if you live on this planet, you’re bound to come across a sugary confection now and then that you just can’t resist. It’s our hope that this new information will help you make decisions that support your microbiome each and every day and inspire you to consciously live a gut-healthy life so you can weather these dietary temptations and begin to feel your very best!
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.
Emily Courtney is a Writer and Editor at Hyperbiotics and mom to two fun and active boys. Emily is passionate about natural wellness and helping others learn about the power of probiotics for vibrant health! For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.