You’ve seen the headlines: Sugar May be Killing You!
And yet, I am not going to recommend that you give up sugar!
But, before you stop reading this and write it off as just more nutrition quackery – hear me out on this!
For fear of sounding like a broken record, but I think it’s worth reminding ourselves how harmful, addictive and prevalent sugar is in our diet.
There are many reasons sugar isn’t good for us, but I want to focus on just one… Inflammation.
Have you had any of these health complaints lately?
- Body aches and pains
- Joint stiffness?
- Trouble sleeping?
- Low energy?
- Mood swings or depression?
- Seem to get colds or “the office bug” more easily?
- Stomach problems like indigestion or acid reflux?
- Bowel issues like diarrhea or constipation?
It could be that chronic inflammation is catching up with you. And there is mounting evidence that eating too much added sugar can actually damage your body on a cellular level by causing low levels of harmful inflammation.
Chronic inflammation has also shown to have a contributing impact on a variety of other conditions including:
- type 2 diabetes
- heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- arthritis and joint diseases like rheumatoid arthritis
About a year ago I wrote about my top 5 predictions for the next decade in health and fitness and number 5 on my list was inflammation (specifically chronic inflammation). I won’t go into that more, but if you want to read more about it go to this link:
A quick review of what inflammation is
Before diving into the connection between inflammation and sugar, let’s do a quick recap. In general, inflammation is your immune system’s response to a stimulus. And though it’s usually talked about in a negative light, it can sometimes be helpful.
Acute inflammation develops rapidly in response to an injury or infection. This type of inflammation tends to be good: It’s your body’s way of trying to fight off further damage while jump-starting healing. It usually lasts a few days to a few weeks. It also happens after lifting heavy resistance. Micro-tears in your muscle fibers require inflammation to heal (we call that ache DOMS-”delayed onset muscle soreness”) and it is how our muscles grow and get stronger.
Chronic inflammation, however, is long-term inflammation that occurs over months or years. It has several causes, including lifestyle factors like diet. Over time, chronic inflammation can increase your risk for serious diseases. (More on those later.)
How does sugar contribute?
Diets high in added sugar are thought to signal the production of pro-inflammatory molecules in the body. Over time, that can create an environment of chronic, low-grade inflammation and lead to trouble in the future.
How much sugar does it take to cause problems, exactly?
Studies have found that people who consume around 40 grams of added sugar per day — roughly the amount in a 12-ounce can of cola or 6 fun-size candy bars — show an increase in inflammatory markers both immediately after consuming it and over time.
Does that mean you’re doomed if you occasionally eat something sweet? Probably not. Experts agree that a healthy diet can include some added sugar. The key is not overdoing it.
The American Heart Association daily recommendations:
- For men: 36 grams which translates to 150 calories or 9 teaspoons
- For women, 25 grams which equals 100 calories or 6 teaspoons.
Does that mean ALL sugars?
One important thing to keep in mind: When we talk about sugar causing inflammation, we’re talking about added sugar. Like, the sugar added to cookies or soda to make them taste sweet. (It goes by many different names, FYI, so read ingredient lists carefully!)
It’s a different story for natural sugars — the kinds that fruits, vegetables, or unsweetened dairy products naturally contain. Unlike added sugars, natural sugars don’t cause inflammation.
That’s because your body processes them differently: You consume natural sugars as part of whole foods that deliver beneficial nutrients like protein and fiber, which encourage the sugars to be absorbed by your bloodstream at a slow, steady rate. That staves off blood sugar spikes and the inflammation that can come with them.
What foods should I avoid with added sugar?
As mentioned, naturally-occurring sugars in fruits, veggies, whole grains, and dairy are not what we’re worried about. It’s the added sugars in processed foods that tend to be the inflammation trigger. Here are some popular foods you may want to limit:
1. Foods with secret sugar code names
Added sugar isn’t always just labeled as “sugar.” Sugar has lots of names that vary from chemical-sounding words to fancy-sounding words. Here are some of the most popular types of sugars you might find on a label:
- high-fructose corn syrup
- cane sugar or juice
- rice syrup
- invert sugar
2. Foods with hidden added sugars
Now that you know some code names for sugar, you may be surprised where those sneaky added sugars hide, even in savory foods. Having an Italiano feast? Tomatoes have natural sugar, but you may see even more added sugar on that sauce label. Here are some foods where you might find added sugar in unexpected places:
- salad dressings
- sauces (especially tomato-based ones like marinara, ketchup, and barbecue!)
- breakfast cereals and prepackaged oatmeal
- fruits in syrup (look for “no added sugar” on the label)
3. “Health” foods
Branding is sometimes a tricky business in food labeling. Foods labeled “healthy” or ones that just feel like they would be a more nutrient-dense option can be prime for added sugar. Granola bars, trail mixes, protein bars, protein powders, and even dried fruits can all contain loads of added sugar.
One trick with dried fruit (which can totally be a good way to satisfy a sweet tooth) is to look for a label free of anything other than 100 percent fruit.
Snacks like mixed nuts, fresh fruits, no added sugar trail mixes, and beef jerky are good alternatives to take on a hike.
4. Low fat foods
Wait, what? Why would we include fat in this sugary discussion? The real truth is that sometimes foods labeled “low fat” are supplemented with added sugar (and sometimes have more calories) to make up for the lack of fat. When in doubt, comparison shop those labels to see if a higher fat alternative is actually the more nutrient-dense than a lower sugar option.
So here is your strategy:
Don’t give up sugar!
Believe me, I’ve tried. Unless you grow your own food and only eat things you raise yourself, it is all but impossible to give up sugar.
Instead, try limiting your intake of added sugar everywhere you can. Read the labels, hide the sugar bowl and make some other changes to your sugar intake.
And, as you know from my previous discussions on diet and nutrition, instead of giving up something, try adding something – like anti-inflammatory foods.
- Increase your anti-inflammatory foods
- Diets rich in fruits and veggies, healthy fats, lean proteins, and whole grains can have an anti-inflammatory effect.
- The most potent foods to reach for include berries, avocado, green tea, peppers, broccoli, fatty fish, grapes, turmeric, extra virgin olive oil, dark chocolate, cherries, and tomatoes. Fill your shopping list with all these goodies!
- Become a sugar detective
- No added sugar and find the hidden sugars in your diet and try to limit them as much as possible
- Limit inflammatory food
- Saturated fats, trans fats, highly processed foods, and foods high in refined carbohydrates (like white bread) are all linked to greater levels of inflammation, so try not to eat them too often
- Stress Less (even about too much sugar!)
- Stress can trigger the same pro-inflammatory pathways as added sugar, as well as spark the urge to eat more of the sweet stuff.
- Find ways to manage it — like exercise, journaling, or yoga — and make time for them regularly.
- Be active
- Regular workouts don’t just help keep stress levels in check. Research shows that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise can stimulate an anti-inflammatory response in your body at the cellular level
- Get enough sleep
- Logging less than 6 hours per night is tied to significantly higher levels of inflammatory markers, according to a 2018 study.
- So set a reasonable bedtime and stick to it. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, practicing good sleep habits can help.
The bottom line
Now you know that eating too much added sugar can lead to unhealthy levels of chronic inflammation, which can negatively affect your health. It only takes a little bit of time and some small changes to slowly get that added, extra sugar out of your life. Trust me, you’ll feel better for it!