How quitting sugar can drastically improve your digestion
By Emmi Scott
Sugar is one factor that you may not realise is affecting your digestive health.
I have spent the past few years refining my diet to combat the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). After I eliminated gluten, dairy, and soy, my life changed from one filled with pain and discomfort to one where I know I can impact how I feel with what I eat.
But when I recently took another step to cut out processed sugar altogether, I saw a big change. It made me reconsider the role that sugar plays in my diet.
I can’t wait to share with you how sugar impacts the digestive system and how quitting it can improve your digestive health.
Processed vs. Natural Sugar
The body changes all sugar into glucose and uses it as energy. But the type of sugar affects how it is metabolised, as well as the impact on overall health.
Natural sugar found in fruit is called fructose. In dairy, it is called lactose. Since fruit is typically rich in fibre, it expands in the stomach and makes you feel full. The protein in dairy has the same effect. This can keep you from overeating.
Processed sugar is extracted from sugarcane and sugar beets before being refined. Sucrose, which is what is usually in our foods, is a combination of glucose and fructose. Man-made sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup, are often found in processed foods.
Processed sugar is broken down in the body very quickly. Because of this, regardless of how many calories you have eaten, you won’t feel full.
What Happens When You Eat Too Much Sugar?
This is important because once they have reached the small intestine, natural and processed sugars are treated the same way by the body. Some will be turned into glucose and used as energy. But if you already have a large amount of sugar in your bloodstream, the body will turn sugar into fat or glycogen, which is used for quick energy.
Since the foods containing natural sugar tend to make you feel full, you are less likely to eat too much of it. But because the body breaks down processed sugar so quickly, you may overeat it and end up with too much sugar in your bloodstream.
Why Processed Sugar Causes Digestive Problems
There are many ways that sugar can negatively impact digestion.
When there is too much sugar in your body for your bloodstream to absorb, the excess sugar makes its way through your digestive system. The bacteria in the bowels feast on the sugars, producing gasses. This can lead to abdominal pain, bloating, and flatulence.
It’s also possible that too much sugar can cause an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the digestive system. It can even hurt good bacteria, leading to more digestive problems.
Excess sugar also draws extra water with it through the digestive system. This can lead to diarrhoea.
How Sugar Affects Common Digestive Conditions
Candida - Candida albicans, the yeast that causes Candida related complex, feed on glucose, fructose, and sucrose. They use the energy from these sugars to build their cell walls. Sugar also helps the Candida albicans turn into their fungal form, which grows quickly and can cause Leaky Gut Syndrome. Fortunately, eating less sugar can slow down or even reverse Candida symptoms.
SIBO - Sugar, particularly the sugars found in fruit and sweeteners, is a source of fermentable carbohydrates that feed the bacteria responsible for SIBO. A common recommendation for SIBO treatment is to cut out sugar, including lactose.
Parasites - Intestinal parasites feed off of sugars, including those found in carbohydrates once broken down. Sugar cravings are actually one of the signs that you may have parasites. One natural recommendation for treating parasites is to remove all sources of natural sugar from your diet, including fruit, honey, dairy, carbohydrates, and starchy vegetables.
Dysbiosis - In fermentation dysbiosis, simple sugars can increase the disruption of the gut microbiota. Avoiding cereal grains and added sugar can be helpful. In the case of fermentation dysbiosis, fruit and starchy vegetables are usually more easily tolerated.
Leaky Gut - A leaky gut can be caused by any of the above (i.e. candida, sibo, parasite or dysbiosis) so it goes without saying that reducing your sugar is a good place to start if treating a leaky gut.
Why I Quit Processed Sugar
Like many people, I have a serious sweet tooth. In fact, my grandfather owned a donut shop and a bakery when I was growing up. Sugary treats were a big part of my childhood.
As I got older and became more concerned about my health, I tried to moderate how many sugar-filled baked goods I was eating. But it wasn’t until I recently completed the Whole30 program that I became more aware of processed sugar.
In case you haven’t heard of Whole30, it’s a 30-day program built around clean eating. Participants eliminate grains, legumes, dairy, processed sugar, and alcohol from their diets.
Although my everyday restricted diet normally works well for me, I had just struggled through a difficult personal time. Stress greatly impacts my digestive system, and foods that usually don’t bother me can irritate it when I’m experiencing too much anxiety.
So I decided to try Whole30 to get my digestive system back on track. Because my diet was already free of dairy, soy, and many grains, getting rid of processed sugar was the biggest change I had to make.
When I realised how much processed sugar was in the foods I normally ate every day, I was astounded. Even foods that I had thought of as healthy were filled with refined sugar. The details were hiding in plain sight on the nutrition labels.
Soon, I began to see positive effects of quitting processed sugar that went beyond the expected digestive benefits. Usually, around 1:30 in the afternoon, I experience intense brain fog and struggle to be productive. Less than a week into Whole30, that was gone. And the constant belly bloat that I had struggled with for the past few months went away. This was a huge relief and made me far more comfortable.
After Whole30, I have allowed some processed sugar back into my diet. But now, I pay close attention to the total amount I’m eating throughout the day.
How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
The United States Department of Health and Human Services recommends that processed sugar make up less than 10 percent of daily calories. For instance, if you eat 1,800 calories a day, 180 or fewer should be processed sugar. This is 45 grams or 11 teaspoons of sugar each day.
But the American Heart Association (AHA) has recently adjusted its daily sugar recommendations to 9 teaspoons for men and 6 teaspoons for women.
And there are MANY others now recommending to lower those amounts even further (like close to zero!) if you are treating any form of illness.
Remember we are talking about added processed sugars (not natural sugars). If you eat a largely whole foods diet then you shouldn’t have too many problems with this. Unfortunately the most common sources of processed sugar are in beverages and sauces sweetened with sugar. Sometimes we consume these items without even thinking twice about it containing sugar.
3 Easy Ways to Avoid Processed Sugar
Although this may feel overwhelming, there are many ways to reduce your added sugar consumption and improve your digestive health.
1. Know the names that hide processed sugar on food labels.
Sugar can be identified with many different names on food labels. They include sucrose, dextrose, fructose, brown sugar, corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup and more below.
2. Avoid processed foods if possible.
While some natural foods contain sugars, those foods often have other characteristics that help you feel full and keep you from over consuming sugar. Processed foods are highly likely to contain added sugar, often in unnecessarily high amounts.
Focus on filling your diet with clean recipes filled with natural foods. Preparing your meals for the week ahead of time can help you avoid buying a processed snack or meal when you’re in a hurry.
3. Find tools to help you identify processed sugar in foods.
Processed sugar is sneaky, often hiding on food labels under other names. Fortunately, there are tools that can help you figure out how much sugar is in an item when you’re buying processed foods.
One great resource is the Sugar Rush app. The app allows you to scan a food’s barcode, and it shows you how many teaspoons of added versus natural sugars the food has.
Another great tool is MyFitnessPal which allows you to enter your meals and tells you the total sugar content.
You don’t have to completely cut out processed sugar to enjoy improved health. But taking steps to make sure you’re consuming a healthy amount of sugar can help you avoid digestive issues.
5 Resources To Inspire You To Quit Sugar
Sometimes it is only through reading books and watching films that we are inspired to take action. I get it, sometimes a blog post just won’t cut it. So here are some recommendations:
Film: That Sugar Film
Film: Fed Up
Film: Food Matters
Film: Sugar Coated
Book: I Quit Sugar
Book: The Case Against Sugar
Eating too much sugar can lead to digestive problems like bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and flatulence. Sugar also feeds or disrupts the bacteria and yeast responsible for digestive issues such as Candida, Leaky Gut Syndrome, SIBO, parasites, and dysbiosis. Current health guidelines suggest that no more than 10 percent of daily calories come from added sugar. This can be achieved through reading nutrition labels, avoiding processed foods, and finding tools to help you identify processed sugar in foods.
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