The words “healthy” and “sugar” typically don’t go hand-in-hand.
We’ve all heard how “bad” sugar is for us.
According to most diet programs, sensational news headlines, sugar-free products and personal trainers, sugar…
Makes us “fat” and leads to weight gain
“Slows down our metabolism”
“Is killing us”
Causes cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s
We’ve also heard the “crazy” statistics on sugar—such as:
“The average American eats 3 pounds of sugar each week, and over 160 pounds per year” (Fun Fact: Back in 1900, humans ate a max of about 10 pounds of sugar every YEAR).
Or, “Sugar is EIGHT TIMES more addicting than cocaine.”
However, while the majority can agree that sugar—at least in excess—is not good for us, very rarely do any of these sources explain WHY sugar is “bad.”
What REALLY happens inside your body when you eat sugar to cause these side effects…and how much sugar is “too much sugar” anyway?
Here are 3 Things That Happen to Your Body (when you eat sugar) —Plus 21 Healthy Treats to Curb Sugar Cravings
3 Things That Happen to Your Body (when you eat sugar)
- Your Gut Gets “Leaky”
Like other processed and refined foods like Fruit Loops, string cheese or Doritos, most forms of sugar consumed today is a “gut irritating” food—irritating to the intestinal gut lining. Our body was not designed to eat sugar (even artificial sweeteners) as we know it today. And not just the type of sugar in a Hershey’s chocolate bar or Oreo cookie. “Sneaky sugar” is everywhere—from salad dressings, to yogurts, sports drinks, chewing gums, protein bars, whey powders, pasta sauce, breads, frozen sausages, deli meats, kombucha and more. When we frequently consume sugar—even sneaky sugar—our gut gets overloaded or “irritated” with trying HARD to digest and break down the synthesized sugar (that it really has no idea what to do with).
Over time, a “reaction” happens similar to repetitively picking at a scab or zit. What eventually happens if you continue scratching that scab or zit time and time again? It eventually pops and oozes. The same sort of thing can happen to your gut lining—or intestinal wall—making your gut more “leaky” or porous, and allowing foreign undigested food particles or chemicals leak into your blood stream. In turn, this causes an inflammatory response, experienced differently in different individuals.
Some folks get skin breakouts or acne. Others get allergies. Others: Autoimmune attacks, “high cholesterol,” frequent colds, bloating or constipation, low energy, anxiety, ADHD/ADD and more.
In addition, sugar consumption causes “gut issues” or an imbalanced “gut flora.” Unhealthy gut bugs LOVE sugar—in fact they thrive and live upon sugar! When we eat, we are not only feeding ourselves, but the trillions of other gut bug critters housed in our intestines. NOT all bacteria is “bad”—we want LOTS of healthy gut bacteria to help us “keep the peace” and balance in our gut flora. However, when we consume sugar, we invite more “bad guys” than “good guys” to come out and play. If you can think about your gut as a garbage landfill—frequent sugar consumption ends up turning your gut micro biome (digestive tract) into a rotting, fermenting, fly-attracting, smelly, upset wasteland.
While this may seem like a simplistic explanation, research (1, 2) shows that sugar consumption and “gut issues” go hand-in-hand.
One study (Turnbaugh et al, 2009) of mice fed a “Westernized” high-sugar, hydrogenated oil diet, found that their gut micro biome “significantly changed” in one day of eating the diet alone.
Even research, dating back to 1991 began finding “gut imbalances” from high sugar consumption, with SIBO-like bacteria (i.e. unhealthy gut bacteria) indicated on hydrogen breath tests in study volunteers (Kruis et al, 1991)
And not JUST sugar, but artificial sweeteners too.
Artificial sweeteners—like Splenda, Aspartame, Equal, Truvia and even (gasp) most versions of stevia—invite the inhabitation of unwanted gut bugs that “alter gut microbiota”
Why is this important?
Your gut is the gateway to health.
If and when you are not digesting, absorbing or nourishing your (healthy) gut bugs, then you can bet your bottom dollar you are at more risk for just about every “claim” that sugar-detoxes, diet sodas, news headlines and bikini body programs rant.
- Your Brain Gets Addicted & Foggy
Aside from the biggie—the gut—your brains equally (negatively) impacted when we eat sugar.
Sugar is addicting.
It’s not new news that sugar fires up the same dopamine response and chemical receptors in your brain as drugs—just like heroine or cocaine.
Hence why sugar is the legal “drug of choice” amongst a vast majority. Vast amounts of research have revealed findings like:
- Rats with intermittent access to sugar consume it in a binge-like manner that releases dopamine each time—similar to substance abuse (Avena et al, 2006 )
- Sugar conditions our brains to think its an opiate (drug) (Spangler et al, 2004)
- And sugar spikes endorphins (our “feel good” hormones that make us happy)
Interestingly, other studies have found that when sugar-addicted folks don’t get their drug or endorphin hit, they are more likely to turn to other “gateway” behaviors or imbalances, including alcohol, food addictions or disordered eating.
Similarly, artificial sweeteners also have a brain-numbing component to them. Some people call this Alzhemier’s, others ADD/ADHD, and still others “brain fog.” Whatever you call it, sugar puts our brains into a trance. While the brain technically runs on sugar (“glucose”), too much of this energy source can be a bad thing, shown to “kill off” brain cells , “shrink the brain,” reduce glucose utilization (i.e. “brain fog”) , and inhibit “healthy (self) judgement” and decision making.
- Your Hormones & Metabolism Get Out of Whack
Herein lies why every magazine article or news story threatens that sugar is “causing the diabetes and obesity epidemic.”
Our bodies can only handle so much glucose and sugar.
When we get an excess, a roller coaster of blood sugar “emotions” happens bringing along with it, wonky cortisol levels (i.e. stress hormones) that lead to “metabolic and hormone dysfunction,” imbalanced cortisol levels (i.e. stress), and consequently, blood sugar imbalances
Sure, we know about Diabetes (insulin resistance) and obesity in relation to metabolism and blood sugar, but you can weigh 100 pounds, a CrossFit enthusiast, or “health conscious eater” and still experience blood sugar imbalances.
“Blood sugar imbalance” namely means our body is running off glucose and sugar, and has difficulty sustaining long-lasting energy levels—without snacks, coffee, naps, exercise (stimulation), caffeine, or something sweet.
As a result, common side effects of “blood sugar imbalance” include:
- Being wired and tired at night
- Needing coffee to function
- Never feeling 100% rested—even though you sleep
- Frequent headaches
- Constipation or bloating, regularly
- Feeling energetic during exercise, but low in energy the other times of day
- Thoughts about food
- Shakiness before meals
- Cravings for sugar or carbs
We condition our bodies to get “imbalanced blood sugar” through low-fat diets, high caffeine and coffee consumption, grain-based or long-term high-carb diets, low protein consumption, and, you guessed it, frequent sugar or artificial sweetener consumption.
In addition, high sugar diets raise estrogen levels . Ever wonder why you have “horrible PMS” or skin breakouts? A look at your sugar (or artificial sweetener) intake, and high glucose consumption may give you answers.
The Bottom Line?
“Getting fat” from sugar intake is a much more complex issue than just sugar “storing as fat”—there is ALOT going on under the hood (hormones, metabolism, brain and gut included).
So Can I Eat Sugar at All?!
Now that you know sugar—at least processed, fake or white cane sugar in excess—doesn’t do a body “good,” how much is “too much” sugar and can your body handle any sugar—at all.
The short answer: Yes.
Before we get to 10 sugar-swaps (to curb your sugar cravings), we must make it clear: NOT ALL “sugar” is bad.
Humans were designed to like sweet things, and our bodies were designed to handle glucose.
When we look to our ancestors, and the original human diet (the way we were created to eat), the vast majority of this diet included carbs (i.e. sugar) in the forms of veggies and fruits.
“Sweets” were not foreign—as berries and fruits were naturally eaten and enjoyed by humans, as well as raw honey.
The difference? Since humans listened to their bodies and ate from the land (i.e. real food) that nature provided, they didn’t fall “victim” to the games that the sugar industry has played on our bodies and brains since our own individual beginnings of time (i.e. after the year 1900).
Do any of these names look familiar?
- High fructose corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Agave nectar
- Malt syrup
- Barley malt
- Brown rice syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
If so, they were NOT familiar back in our ancestors’ day, and these versions of sugar are NOT ideal.
However, within an 80/20 balance, WHEN you eat real foods the majority of the time (real-food carbs like starchy tubers, some fruits and veggies included) your body (and brain) totally know what to do with the “little dirt” that never hurt.
Instead of giving you an exact “number of sugar” grams however of what that actually looks like, the BIGGER question to ask yourself is a heart (and gut) check.
“Is this a nourishing healthy choice for ME?” Or, “How am I nourishing my body?”
Ice cream on a hot date, birthday cake on your birthday or a piece or two of candy on Halloween CAN totally be part of a “healthy choice” for you (especially if the diet mentality is NOT present).
However, sweets and treats can ALSO be an “unhealthy” choice for you if you find yourself dreaming, savoring, planning or addicted to the next hit of sugar.
If this is you, more than likely, your brain and body will NOT benefit from the sweet treat like it could if you were actually able to “have your cake too.”
For folks really “struggling” to curb their sweet tooth, a time away from sugar can actually be a short-term healthy thing. I really like Sara Wilson’s “I Quit Sugar!” non-threatening approach to cutting back on sugar, or in the simplest of terms, “going cold turkey” away from artificial sweeteners and added sugars (even honey and maple syrup) for a time, in place of a real-foods-only approach—especially emphasizing the consumption of 1 to 2 healthy fats with every meal, including: avocado, raw nuts and seeds, fatty fish, extra virgin olive oil, ghee, coconut butter, grass-fed butter, coconut oil, nut butter, pastured egg yolks, organic fatty meats and olives.
Check out my 20 snack swaps too for curbing “sugar monster” cravings.
21 Snacks to Curb Your Sugar Cravings
*Aim first and foremost to eat balanced meals before turning to snacking
- Eating Evolved Chocolate Square (70-100% Dark Chocolate) or Coconut Butter Cups
- “Fat Bombs”
- “Butter Chai” Tea (or Cinnamon Tea)
- Coconut Butter with Half Green Tipped Banana
- Dark Chocolate Covered Almonds (Homemade) https://paleoleap.com/dark-chocolate-covered-almonds/
- “Baked” Cinnamon Apples or Pears with Coconut Oil & Cinnamon
- Fresh Cherries with Coconut Flakes
- Celery with Sunbutter & Raisins
- Handful Raw Macadamia Nuts
- Plantain Chips with Guacamole
- Pan-Fried Peaches in Coconut Oil
- Grass-fed Fermented Goat’s Milk Kefir with Frozen Blueberries
- Coconut Yogurt with Cinnamon
- Buttermints by Empowered Sustenance
- Melon wrapped in Proscuitto
- Cinnamon Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
- Cherry Tomatoes, Cucumber & Goat Cheese
- Collagen Protein Bites
- Organic Beef Jerky & Fruit Mix
- Avocado Chocolate Mouse by Fresh Start