There are many foods to eat for a healthy gut, but some you should also limit. According to research, sugar tops the list of foods that are bad for your gut health. Here's why.

Jessica Ball, M.S., RD
November 06, 2020
Advertisement

There's plenty of reasons gut health is so trendy in the nutrition world. A healthy gut can help with weight loss, immunity, stress relief and more. Lucky for us, there are several healthy foods that keep you gut in tip-top shape. From probiotics, like kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt, to prebiotics, like leeks, berries and legumes, there are plenty of foods to add to your diet for a healthy gut.

However, there is one type of food that can do some damage to gut health: sweeteners. Whether you're eating sugar or alternative sweeteners, sweet foods can put added strain on your microbiome. We dove into the research to see why sweeteners can damage gut health, plus tips on how to cut back and what to eat instead.

Why sugar is bad for your gut

This is probably not the first time you have heard that consuming excessive added or refined sugar can have negative consequences for your health. This doesn't include the naturally occurring sugars found in fruit and milk, but rather added sugar including white sugar, brown sugar and other sweeteners. These sugars are easy to over consume since you'll find them in cookies, candy and soda—but also yogurt, sauces and salad dressings. Over time, refined sugar can lead to myriad of chronic diseases, from obesity to heart disease and diabetes. Yet, nearly 90% of Americans still exceed the Dietary Guidelines (DGA) recommendation for added sugar. They recommend no more than 10 % of calories come from added sugar (That's about 50 grams, or 13 teaspoons, of added sugar for a 2,000 calorie-diet). High sugar consumption could have unintended consequences for gut health, as well.

High-sugar diets have been linked to higher levels of inflammation, especially for sugars like high-fructose corn syrup. This inflammation can irritate the gut, damaging the protective mucus layer and decreasing the amount of good bacteria. A recent study published in Science Translational Medicine found that mice who consumed a diet high in refined sugars had high instances of gut diseases like colitis and even experienced degradation of the protective mucus lining of their gut. While this latest study was done in animals, similar findings were echoed in previous research that diets high in refined sugar (over 165 grams a day) had significant effects on gut function compared to diets lower in refined sugar (60 grams a day). A study in Obesity Reviews suggested that consistent high consumption of simple sugars can condition the gut and negatively affect its composition overtime.

sugar cubes in a spoon
Credit: Getty Images/

Why artificial sweeteners are also bad for your gut

Even though they typically don't contain any actual sugar, artificial sweeteners are not off the hook when it comes to their impact on your gut. Artificial sweeteners don't contain calories, so they pass through our system without being digested and come in contact with our gut microflora. Everything we eat influences the composition of our gut microbiome, and artificial sweeteners are no exception. A study in Nature found that artificial sweeteners alter your gut composition in ways that can lead to problems such as glucose intolerance and insulin resistance, upping diabetes risk.

A 2016 review of research found that artificial sweeteners can also affect our gut motility (the ability of food to pass through it) and can worsen the effects of gastrointestinal disease, particularly irritable bowel syndrome. However, since the microbiome is so individual, more human studies need to be done to clarify our understanding.

Four easy ways to cut down on sweeteners

There are several foods that are good for gut health, include sauerkraut, kimchi, leeks, berries beans and more, so try focusing on those rather than the not-so-good foods for you gut. Though sweeteners may be one of the worst offenders, it doesn't mean you can't be healthy if you occasionally enjoy something sweet. Instead of trying to cut them out entirely, which is not realistic for most, focus on cutting down on sources of sugar or artificial sweeteners in your day.

Swap soda or sweetened beverages for tea or seltzer. You can control the added sugar when you brew your coffee or tea, and can get your sugar-free bubbly drink fix from seltzer. Adding frozen berries or citrus slices can boost the flavor without adding sugar.

Snack on fruit. When you feel a sweet tooth coming on, reach for an apple, a handful of berries or an orange. Fruit contains natural sugars, vitamins and fiber, which can boost gut health while satisfying a craving for something sweet.

Practice moderation. Planning ahead for a sweet treat can help you choose an appropriate portion size. Also, be sure to plan for a healthy snack so you don't get caught off guard with something sweet in a pinch. Enjoy sweets mindfully, whether it is a beverage or food, so you can feel more satisfied from less.

Read labels. There are several foods, like plant-based milk and condiments, that can be sneaky sources of added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Instead of using a store bought sauce packet, try using herbs and spices to boost food's flavor when you cook.

For more tips and tricks, check out our 30-Day Slash Your Sugar Challenge.