Sugar and the gut: How cookies, cakes, or your favorite sugary sweets wreak havoc

It’s commonly understood that sugar can negatively affect just about everything about our health. The gut is not exempt from this. Too much sugar consumption can reduce the number of healthy bacteria present in the gut while increasing the unhealthy kinds. In turn, this increases the risk for development of leaky gut and overall gut dysbiosis.

In general, when we eat sugar, it can get processed out through the gut and end up in feces, causing little harm. The sugar that does get absorbed goes through the liver. People who eat high amounts of sugar regularly process it much differently. The gut can recognize a high sugar diet, causing it to adjust to by producing enzymes that facilitate the breakdown of sugar.

“You create a positive feedback system where the more of it you eat, the more you absorb,” writes Dr. Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist and professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, in a report.

Ultimately, as a result, more sugar gets dumped into the liver. The more that ends up there, the more it will have difficulty converting to energy. “What happens then is your liver turns it into fat,” Lustig explains. “That fat either gets exported out as triglycerides, which increases your risk for heart disease or obesity, or it doesn’t make it out, and contributes to fatty liver disease and other chronic diseases — especially diabetes.”

This doesn’t even begin to touch on what sugar does to the gastrointestinal tract. Unhealthy bacteria feed on sugar, but healthy bacteria do not. As more bad bacteria find a home in your gut with a consistently high sugar diet, this can cause trouble with the immune system.

Close to 70% of the body’s immunity is dependent upon the gut, so immune cells are constantly taking in the changing environment in response to food. When conditions worsen, the system sends a signal that ends up causing inflammation. Inflammation can worsen the gut’s condition even more and is key to the onset of virtually all disease that exists.

A general, but useful rule of thumb is not to stop yourself entirely from enjoying sweets. A piece of pie every now and then isn’t going to send your body spiraling. It’s the frequency that matters. Additionally, supporting your gut with foods that help keep healthy bacteria alive will be even more important.

Fuel yourself with whole foods like fruits, vegetables, ample protein sources, healthy fats and oils, and nuts/seeds. If you struggle with making better food choices or feel concerned with your gut health related to your diet, be sure to contact a dietitian or doctor. Any significant changes to your daily routine should also be discussed with your physician.


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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan

Shyla Cadogan is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition and Food Science. She is on her way to becoming a Registered Dietitian, with next steps being completion of a dietetic internship at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Shyla has extensive research experience in food composition analysis and food resource management.

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