Sugar, The Not So Sweet Truth

As a general rule, we know too much sugar is not good for us. It can rot our teeth and make us overweight, putting us at risk for chronic diseases, such as diabetes.

We know it’s found in candy, chocolate bars, soda pop, and more people are increasingly becoming aware of the fact that it is hidden in many packaged food – including the seemingly healthy foods.

What the general public is less aware of is what sugar is doing to particular organs. What happens to our brain? Does sugar have any affect on the extremely important microbiome, or the ‘good’ gut bacteria that inhabit our digestive tract?

First, we will have a brief look at the social determinants that may increase the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages. I will touch on an idea of how this can be tackled from a population health perspective.

We will then examine, based on scientific studies, some of the negative effects sugar has on the body, in particular the brain and microbiome. Lastly, I will give you some healthier sugar alternatives, and practical tips on how you can avoid this sweet and silent assassin.

According to Harvard

According to the Harvard School of Public Health (2015), increasing consumption of sugary drinks is a major contributing factor to the global obesity epidemic. A typical 20 ounce soda contains 15-18 teaspoons of sugar. Just do you have an idea, the Dietetics Association of Australia (2015) set a reference value for the maximal intake of sugar at 6 teaspoons per day—-not even close!

According to the World Health Organization (2015), obesity rates have doubled since 1980 and we now live in a world where the majority of the population live in countries where obesity kills more frequently than underweight. Have we missed the balance point, or did we just speed past it without looking back?

What could explain the variation in sugar consumption amongst the population? WHO (2015) identified several social determinants that may increase the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages: education, income, social status, environment, and social support.

For example, research has found a correlation between parents’ level of education and their nutritional awareness revealing that less educated parents may have minimal nutritional knowledge (Thurber et al., 2014). This represents a generalised view, and is not meant to disregard individual experiences.

How would you feel about a sugar tax—-particularly, a soda tax? Diabetes Australia (2015) found that price does influence sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. A study by Andreyeva et al., (2010) found that a 10% increase in soft drink prices could reduce consumption by 8-10%. Would you still reach for the bubbly brew if you knew it was costing you more?

What about our brain?

Our brains allow us to think, feel, understand, move, create and store copious amounts of beautiful memories and information, even if ironically, it’s information we’d rather not remember! Nonetheless, the brain is important, and thus, it’s important we treat it with respect, and fuel our bodies with the right ‘brain food’. In this case, it’s the infamous sugar we don’t consume that will boost our brain power.

A recent study by Klenowski et al., (2016) examined the effects of long-term, binge-consumption of sugar and its effect on the brain. Having the knowledge that sugar causes the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens similarly to the use of drugs of abuse, researchers investigated changes in the morphology of neurons in this brain region following short (4 weeks) and long term (12 weeks) binge-like sugar consumption intake in rats. Results demonstrated that long term, rather than short term binge-intake of sugar, altered neurons within this region of the brain, reducing their length, specifically, in the shell of the nucleus accumbens.

Why should you care if you’re neurons become a little vertically challenged? These neurons are long in length in order to send messages, similar to wires in a computer. Messages can’t be sent as smoothly if there’s a short in the fuse! The role of the nucleus accumbens is to create the feeling of ‘reward’, this can be to either positive or negative stimuli. Perhaps now the connection can be made between over consumption of sugar with regards to depression, and other mental health issues.

Could the modern day Western diet be numbing our brains? That topic is to be saved for another discussion.

A study by Agus et al., (2016) looked at the impact the high fat and high sugar Western diet is having on our gut health, referred to as the microbiome in the literature. Authors noted that the 20th century trend of increased fat and sugar in the diet is associated with a paralleled increase in Chron’s disease, an inflammatory condition of the intestinal tract.

Results revealed that a high fat/high sugar diet created a specific inflammatory condition in the gut, correlated with intestinal mucosa dysbiosis (a fancy term for an imbalance of gut bacteria) characterised by an overgrowth of pro-inflammatory bacteria, such as E. Coli, a decrease in protective bacteria, and a significant decrease in short chain fatty acid concentrations (Agus et al., 2016). Short chain fatty acids are end products of the fermentation of fibre.

Nanna was right

Your grandmother really did give you the right advice when you were told to eat your fruits and veggies. The ‘good’ gut bacteria use these fermented end products as food, thus, allowing them to multiply. It’s not always polite to be one-sided, but with regards to your gut health, it’s okay to give the rebellious buggers the cold shoulder!

What can you do about this?

As promised, it’s time to get down to the practicalities. Let’s start with what you can eat, some whole food, healthy alternatives. These are my personal recommendations and tips I have gathered over the years from my own experience, as well as with working with numerous clients.

I believe acceptable sweeteners are raw, Manuka honey, pure, organic maple syrup, coconut sugar, and date syrup. It is important to limit yourself to 1-2 tablespoons per day, as sugar is still sugar. From my short experience working as a nurse in Scotland, raw Manuka honey was used topically and applied to breast tumours to relieve inflammation.

Organic maple syrup (as a Canadian, I am partially biased) has a fantastic flavour, and the added benefit of extra minerals.

Date syrup is dates, pulverised into a thick syrup. Dates are also great chopped up in their whole form and added to porridges or baked muffin recipes. Dates are full of fibre, helping to produce those all important short chain fatty acids. However, 1-2 dates is sufficient. Dried fruit should be kept to a minimum.

Coconut sugar is lower on the Glycemic Index, a rating that classifies spikes in blood sugar levels. The lower on the GI scale, the better.

Other ways to sweeten foods, such as porridge, include freshly chopped fruit. Berries are fantastic, full of both fibre and antioxidants, which help to protect our bodies from cellular damage. I find that fresh fruit is truly the best way to sweeten foods, from porridges, to baked goods, to additions in salads and even soups (fresh apples and pears taste beautiful in a butternut squash soup). Fresh fruit has the added benefit of water and fibre. This slows down absorption, and prevents blood sugar levels from spiking.

Here are my top tips on how to avoid sugar cravings:

  • Eat breakfast.
  • Better yet, eat breakfast that includes both a fat and protein component. Thus, keeping you fuller, longer.
  • Buy whole foods and keep packaged/processed foods to a minimum.
  • Eat out less, and cook at home more. This way, you know exactly what is going into your food. Warming spices such as cinnamon and ginger enhance the flavour of foods, pleasing to the tastebuds. You don’t have to create complex dishes, or spend hours dwelling on complicated recipes…. keep it simple! This isn’t an audition for Master Chef. Roasted veggies, simple salads, steamed fish, baked chicken, turkey or lamb burgers, poached eggs…. these are all foods that can be prepared in minimal amounts of time.
  • Get enough sleep. When we are tired, our bodies often crave sugar for an instant ‘energy boost’, however, long-term, this is counter-productive.
  • Keep sugary snacks out of reach. Instead, take a piece of fresh fruit to work, sliced veggies with hummus, nuts, seeds, or whole food energy bars.
  • Learn to read labels. Even ‘healthy foods’. Don’t be tricked. If sugar is the first ingredient listed, it’s likely concentrated in high amounts in the product.
  • White bread and white pasta is assimilated in the body, similar to sugar. Go for whole grains or root vegetables to get your complex carbs.
  • Drink plenty of water. Sometimes when we feel hungry, we are actually thirsty.
  • Become a master of distraction. Go for a walk or just get up and move. If you distract yourself, the craving often passes.




Klenowski P, Shariff M, Belmer A, Fogarty M, Mu E, Bellingham M, Bartlett S. Prolonged consumption of sucrose in a binge-like manner, alters the morphology of medium spiny neurons in the nucleus accumbens shell. Front Behav Neurosci. 2016;10:54. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00054. Retrieved from http://

Andreyeva T, Long MW, Brownell KD. (2010). The impact of food prices on consumption: A systematic review of research on the price elasticity of demand for food. American Journal of Public Health. 2010;100(2):216.

Diabetes Australia. (2015). Sugar-sweetened beverages consumption in Australia: The problem and what needs to be done. Accessed on [March 18 2015]. Retrieved from http://

Dieticians Association of Australia. (2015). Daily intake guide. Accessed on [March 18 2015]. Retrieved from http://

Thurber K, Bagheri N, Banwell C. (2014). Social determinants of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in the longitudinal study of Indigenous children. Family Matters, No. 95, p. 51-61.

Agus A, Denizot J, Thevenot J, Medina M, Massier S, Sauvanet P, Donadille A, Denis S, Hofman D, Bonnet R, Billard E, Barnich N. Western diets induces a shift in microbiota composition enhancing susceptibility to adherent-invasive E.coli infection and intestinal inflammation. Sci Rep. 2016;6:19032. doi: 10.1038/srep19032. Retrieved from http://


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