How Sugar Affects Gut Health
Diet plays a crucial role in determining the composition of our gut microbiome. The intestinal microbiome is home to trillions of microbes, each which play a distinct part in our digestion and absorption process. Without these microbes, we wouldn’t be able to properly digest our food or extract nutrients.
You may be thinking, doesn’t our own body digest the food we consume?
Partially, yes, through mechanical processes in our intestines, which allow for the physical digestion of food. However, the microbes in our gut are the ones responsible for absorbing the nutrients in the foods we eat. The microbiome begins developing at birth, and continuously changes over the course of our lifetime based on numerous factors, including diet and lifestyle.
Why should I care about my gut health?
Poor gut health can be an indicator for many other risk factors, including nutritional deficiencies, obesity, food intolerances, a lowered immune system, and even a depressed mood. Without a productive microbiota, our bodies may be unable to effectively absorb nutrients from the food we eat. Conversely, our gut microbes could harvest and store too many calories, potentially resulting in unintended weight gain. Having a healthy gut flora can help to keep off unwanted pounds, while still ensuring you are getting the nutrients you need.
Serotonin, also known as the “happy chemical,” is a neurotransmitter produced by gut bacteria. This is one of the reasons the gut has been deemed the “second brain” of the human body, as it has its own nervous system that manufactures hormones and neurotransmitters. Up to 95% of serotonin is produced in the gut, meaning that the state of the microbiome has a crucial influence on mood. Improving your microbiome can improve your mood!
Especially now, a strong immune system is key to fighting off sickness. The immune system works in tandem with the microbiome, and the highest amount of immune cells are contained in the gastrointestinal tract. Immune cells in the GI tract can reduce inflammation and promote the production of antimicrobial peptides, helping to prevent disease. In short, the healthier your gut flora, the easier time you’ll have protecting yourself from sickness.
How does sugar factor into this?
In the past century, Americans have increased their sugar intake ten-fold. It is theorized that excess sugar may be the cause of many diseases now pervading Western culture, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many others. With increasing research, scientists are now discovering that gut health may play a role in this upward trend in disease. Consuming excess sugar causes a change in the composition and abundance of the microbes in the gut, usually for the worse. It has been found in laboratory studies that high sugar diets caused a decrease in microbial diversity, increased gut inflammation, and was correlated with body fat accumulation. Moreover, overconsumption of sugar can cause malabsorption of vital vitamins and minerals needed to nourish the body.
Does this mean I shouldn’t consume sugar?
The problem isn’t natural sugars, like the ones in fruits, vegetables, milk products, or grains. The problem is added sugars, such as the ones added to enhance flavor. These can be seen on nutrition labels with names such as:
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Malt, rice, or maple syrup
- Dextrose, maltose, fructose
- Invert sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar
- Evaporated cane juice
- Honey, molasses
Added sugars are usually found in products such as sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, baked goods, ice cream, and cereals. They can also be sugars you add yourself, such as sugar to your morning coffee. The American Heart Association recommends that men eat no more than 36 grams of added sugar per day, while women should consume fewer than 24 grams per day. Currently, the average American consumes 70 grams of added sugar per day, double the amount that is suggested.
Natural sugars, when eaten in conjunction with fiber, have not been seen to meddle with the microbiome. This is because fiber encourages the growth and abundance of beneficial bacteria. Natural sugars are usually inherently paired with fiber, like in the case of most plant foods, such as fruit. Fruit juices, however, contains no fiber because the juice is extracted from the fruit and the fibrous components are removed. Drinking fruit juice will pack a natural-sugar-punch, as juice is concentrated and there is no fiber to slow the journey to the bloodstream. Eating a fruit in its natural form, though, can guarantee you sustained energy with the benefits of fiber. Your best bet? When consuming natural sugars, try to consume it in its whole fibrous form, rather than in its processed form.
Fruit provides fiber, which helps to encourage the growth of good bacteria in the gut.
What can I do to improve my gut health?
Luckily, there is still hope. We are in partial control of the makeup of our microbiota, and there are things we can do to improve our gut health. Our microbiome has plasticity, meaning it adapts and changes based on what we eat, as well as what we surround ourselves with. It has been found that a change in diet can change the composition of the microbiome in a matter of days, and you won’t have to wait months or even weeks to improve your gut health. Here are our top tips on how to promote a healthy microflora.
Reduce Added Sugar Intake
As we just discussed, added sugars can wreak havoc on our good bacteria. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommends keeping added sugar intake to less than 10% of your daily calorie intake, which would be less than 200 calories if you are consuming a 2000 calorie diet. Better yet, try and consume as little added sugars as possible. Added sugars are commonly regarded as “empty calories,” as they contain no nutritional value and provide little benefit for our bodies. Almost 50% of added sugars in the typical American diet comes from beverages, such as soda, fruit juice, and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Some recommendations to reduce your added sugar intake include:
- Reading nutrition labels
- Eating fruit for dessert
- Swapping water for soda
- Adding less sugar to your coffee or tea
- Avoiding sauces with lots of sugar
- Switching to unsweetened cereals
Reducing your intake of added sugar and transitioning to consuming more whole foods and products with fewer ingredients can repopulate your microbiome with good bacteria that will help to promote health and longevity.
One easy step is to check food labels, which can help you to lessen or avoid sugar intake that you may not realize you are consuming. This brings us to some foods/components you should look to increase in your diet that will aid in changing your microbiome for the better.
Consuming whole foods is a great way to lower added sugar and increase fiber in your diet.
The best way to feed and flourish our microbes is through eating fiber. Fiber is classified as long chains of indigestible carbohydrates, such as cellulose found in plants. The reason we are unable to digest components like fiber is because our gut does not contain the enzymes needed to break them down. This means that our microbes are able to feed on them, stimulating growth.
It has been estimated that 95% of Americans are not eating the daily recommended amount of fiber. Not only does this starve our good bacteria, but also causes symptoms like constipation, weight gain, fatigue, and even chronic conditions such as diabetes and some types of cancer and disease. Luckily, fiber is in foods all around us. Fiber is only found in plant products, but can also be added to products, with names such as inulin, pectin, psyllium husk, cellulose, guar gum, and locust bean gum. Some rich sources of fiber include:
- Vegetables like broccoli, brussel sprouts, avocados, and carrots
- Fruits like apples, strawberries, raspberries, and bananas
- Legumes like chickpeas, kidney beans, and lentils
- Grains like oats and quinoa
- Nuts like almonds, coconuts, and pistachios
- Dark chocolate
Eating fiber is a win-win. Not only does it make you feel fuller for longer and feed our good bacteria, but consuming fiber can also assist in weight reduction and glycemic control. This is because the satiety that fiber provides can decrease hunger and cause individuals to eat less overall. Not only this, but consuming fiber allows for the production of molecules called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs for short) in the gut that induce anti-inflammatory effects and help to protect against cancers, like colon cancer, through inducing cancer cell death. SCFAs have also been associated with overall metabolic benefit and leanness, as they break down carbohydrates for energy usage, causing these calories to not be converted and stored as fat.
Probiotics are foods that are typically fermented and contain live digestible microbes that are beneficial for gut health. Some good sources of probiotics are:
- Sourdough bread
Consuming probiotics can help to alleviate GI discomfort and has been found to lower total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. By consuming probiotics, beneficial bacteria are assimilated into your microflora and allows for favorable repopulation of the gut.
Fermented foods are rich sources of probiotics.
Prebiotics are non-digestible constituents in the diet that foster a healthy gut through growth promotion of certain microbes. In essence, prebiotics feed the healthy bacteria in the gut and allow them to flourish. Popular sources of prebiotics include:
- Soybeans and soy products
- Unprocessed wheat
- Garlic and onion
- Flax seeds
The good news? Prebiotics can be found in almost any fiber-rich food. Researchers have found that diets high in prebiotics, and therefore fiber, results in an increased abundance of microbes in the gut, specifically Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli. These bacteria help to digest fiber, form vitamins and short-chain fatty acids, and fight infection. Adding sources of prebiotics to your diet can help bacteria like these to thrive and promote well-being.
Conventionally-grown produce is grown with the usage of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or other chemicals to deter pests and mold. Unfortunately, these chemicals tend to be absorbed by the produce and cannot be washed off completely through cleaning methods. This means that by consuming non-organic produce, we are consuming the chemicals as well. Recent research has suggested that consuming produce exposed to pesticides has an adverse effect on the gut microbiome. Organic produce, however, does not use such chemicals, hormones, genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) or antibiotics in their growing process. By choosing organic produce instead of conventionally-grown produce, you can assure that you will be ingesting far fewer harmful chemicals that can tamper with your gut health.
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a “Dirty Dozen” list, a compilation of twelve fruits and vegetables that have the highest pesticide traces from conventionally grown produce. This includes produce like strawberries, spinach, kale, apples, and grapes, and it’s important that these products are bought organic. EWG also publishes a “Clean Fifteen” list annually, with avocados, corn, and pineapple topping the list for 2020. These products do not need to be bought organic, as they typically have little to no pesticide residues when commercially grown. While this may be confusing, don’t let this deter you from buying produce. Eating fruits and vegetables can provide so many benefits to the body, including fiber, polyphenols, antioxidants, and various vitamins and minerals.
While hydration status is already important for the majority of bodily processes, staying hydrated has an advantageous effect on the gut microbiome. Water helps to hydrate the mucosal lining of the intestines, which is almost entirely made up of water. If the mucus is not properly hydrated, it collapses and is not able to provide a beneficial environment for our gut bacteria.
Luckily, drinking an adequate amount of water per day is a quick fix. While it’s important to drink 2-3 liters per day, you can also get water through eating produce like watermelon, cucumber, lettuce, or tomatoes, or infuse your water with things like citrus or mint. The better your hydration status, the better your gut will be at properly utilizing water and maintaining a hospitable environment for our good bacteria.
Infusing water is a great way to boost your antioxidant intake.
As we can see, a healthy gut can be facilitated with diet and lifestyle. Simply adding a few fibrous foods to your diet and drinking enough water can already put you on track to improving your gut health. Looking for some new gut-friendly products? Tastermonial can help. Check out our selection of organic, fiber-filled snacks in our shop!
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Tastermonial content is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Take necessary precautions when handling information regarding food and nutrition.