The Surprising Ways Refined Sugar Affects Your Health & Immune Function (and tips for avoiding it)
Updated: May 23
One of the single most powerful things you can do to prevent disease, increase longevity, and improve your health is to avoid eating refined sugar. Yet, giving it up can be one of the greatest health challenges to accomplish and maintain long-term. Especially in today's society where sugar is added freely to foods without a second thought. Add to this the addictive nature of sugar, our natural desire for sweet flavors, and conflicting information on what constitutes a “healthy” vs “unhealthy” sugar and it’s no wonder most people throw in the towel after just a few weeks. However, once you understand the science behind how sugar negatively affects your health and how to use other foods and lifestyle changes to balance out those cravings, you’ll find it’s a little easier to say goodbye to refined sugar after all.
What does refined sugar do to the body?
Most of us know sugar isn’t good for us, but we don’t really know why—or more specifically what refined sugar actually does to our bodies.
Sugar impacts our physical, mental, and emotional health in more ways than one. First, it’s important to understand that most modern refined table sugar no longer comes from sugar cane; it comes from genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets. For those who aren’t familiar with GMOs, they are seeds which have been genetically engineered to resist large amounts of glyphosate pesticide application, a probable carcinogen). So, the sugar we’re consuming today is genetically different and higher in pesticides than the sugar we were eating just a decade ago. That doesn’t mean refined sugar from sugar cane is healthy, it just shows how much our food has changed in a short period of time.
So, what happens when you consume refined sugar? Refined sugar is essentially a naked carbohydrate that’s been completely stripped of all its nutrients and fiber during processing. This causes it to rob your body of essential nutrients like B-vitamins and magnesium when eaten. As it enters your bloodstream it causes a major spike in blood sugar which creates a cascade effect, forcing your pancreas to produce extra insulin, which causes your adrenals to pump out stress hormones, all of which your liver must process later on—which is why excess sugar has been linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. As it’s broken down and absorbed, refined sugar continues its rampage by feeding pathogens and yeasts which disrupt your body’s microbiome leading to a drop in immune function. Excess sugar consumption also produces free radicals which causes cell damage resulting in inflammation which can lead to a variety of chronic conditions, from heart disease and obesity to dementia, depression, and even some cancers. Last and most important, refined sugar suppresses infection-fighting white blood cells, disrupts the microbiome, and devastates immune function making us more vulnerable to illness.
Where is refined sugar hiding?
It’s estimated that Americans eat about 152 pounds of sugar per person per year (!!!)…which is about 150 pounds more than we ate 200 years ago and about 29 pounds more than we ate in 1970. To give you a visual, that equates to about 3 pounds a week! However, much of that sugar comes from hidden sources: namely processed foods. Which means you can greatly reduce your sugar consumption by scrutinizing labels for refined sugars on these common kitchen staples:
Condiments: especially ketchup, honey mustard, and other sweet-tasting spreads.
Frozen and canned prepared foods: look out for ingredients like corn syrup, glucose syrup, natural flavors.
Sauces, jams, and jellies: tomato products often contain loads of added sugar.
Low-fat foods: manufacturers often add sugar to replace the flavor found in fat.
Store bought salad dressings: these are typically loaded with refined sugar, especially the sweet tasting ones.
Gluten-free foods: including breads, crackers, cookies, donuts, etc.
Processed fruit products: many juices, dehydrated fruits, popsicles, and even frozen fruits contain added sugars.
Flavored yogurt (even the organic varieties): and watch out for sugar-free varieties containing artificial sweeteners, as these are even worse than refined sugar!
Soda and alcohol
Chips, crackers, pretzels, etc. often contain sugar, especially if they’re flavored
The Many "Code-Names" for Refined Sugar
Cane juice crystals
Corn syrup solids
High fructose corn syrup
As you can see, we have gotten very good at disguising sugar. However, once you get the hang of identifying hidden sugars it’s not difficult to spot them on food labels. You can also look for sugar-free brands, but even then you need to make sure they aren’t substituting harmful artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, erythritol, etc., which can be worse than refined sugar.
The best alternatives
The rewards of giving up refined sugar for your health are endless, but that doesn’t mean you need to deny yourself of everything sweet and tasty! Research has shown one of the best ways to overcome an unhealthy habit is to replace it with a healthier habit; in this case: a healthier sugar alternative.
Below are my “better sweeteners” but don’t be fooled. They are still sugar 😬 As a general guideline, I try to keep my total added sugar to <20g per day.
✅ Pure maple syrup is a low glycemic sap and contains antioxidants and minerals such as zinc and manganese.
✅ Raw honey is an incredible medicinal substance, especially manuka. It is a anti-microbial agent and packed with antioxidants and minerals. Watch out for fake honey products (mass produced honey, especially from China) loaded with toxic syrups & sugars and contaminated with antibiotics & heavy metals.
✅ Blackstrap molasses, has a lot of its sugar extracted and therefore, has a lower glycemic index compared to cane sugar. It is more bitter but also rich in antioxidants.
✅ Coconut sugar is an unrefined low glycemic sweetener and contains some trace minerals.
✅ Dates are one of my favorites natural sweeteners since it is a whole food and also come with a significant amount of fiber to balance blood sugar.
✅ Stevia is 200x sweeter than sugar and can improve blood sugar and insulin response (especially great for diabetics) and does not wreak havoc on the gut like so many artificial sweeteners do. Not all stevia is created equally! Choose 100% stevia extract.
✅ Monk fruit sweetener and erythritol are okay but they are not my top choices.
Creating a Healthier Habit
Here at Next to Nature, we want to help you reach success in limiting or even halting your refined sugar consumption. This is why we have dedicated so much thought into our grocery section. We have multiple options for alternatives as well as lunch, dinner, and snack options without those pesky added sugars! Our goal is to be a market where you don't have to obsess over reading each and every label tirelessly to find a better option for you and your family. We want to see you reach your goals and improve your health in the process! Is there anything better than that?!