Oh, sugar. It’s an ingredient near and dear to the hearts of many, whether you reach for it as an indulgence after a long day or enjoy it during times of celebration or every time family and friends comes to town.

Problem is, even though it’s good for a good time, too much of it is not good at all for your body — especially your microbiome.

Your microbiome is the living collection of all the bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that reside in and on your body. The beneficial bacteria in your gut help support a variety of bodily functions, like fighting off illnesses, keeping your blood sugar stable, helping you focus, and even keeping bad moods at bay.

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Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles — including what we eat along with lifestyle factors like stress — can disrupt our delicate microbial balance. One sure way to disrupt your microbiome is to eat a diet full of high sugar, highly processed foods.

What are the different kinds of sugar?

To understand what sugar does to gut health, it’s first helpful to know about all the different kinds of sugar. The word “sugar” likely evokes mental images of candy, chocolate, cake and other typical sweet treats. However, sugar encompasses a much broader range of food groups. Here are five different kinds of sugar.

Simple sugars
Simple sugars — such as sucrose (table sugar), fructose (sugar found in fruits and vegetables), and glucose — are found naturally in some whole foods and added to processed foods.

High-fructose corn syrup
HFCS is a liquid sweetener derived from corn and contains mostly fructose with small amounts of glucose. It’s often used in place of sucrose in processed foods.

Artificial sweeteners
Aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin (Sweet and Low) are examples of non-caloric artificial sweeteners that are often added to processed foods. They may be zero-calorie, but these sweeteners contain harmful chemicals that can disrupt your microbial balance.

Sugar alcohols
Ingredients such as sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol are found in many processed foods, including protein bars and powders, sports drinks and candies. They contain a negligible amount of calories and are usually okay moderation. However, large portions of sugar alcohols can lead to bloating, cramping, and diarrhea.

Natural sweeteners
Natural sweeteners make for the healthiest choices because they typically contain more micronutrients than the other options listed here. You can almost always adjust recipes to include a natural sweetener instead of table sugar. Honey, agave, maple syrup, dates and stevia are great natural sweeteners.

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Why is sugar bad for gut health?

The healthy bacteria in our gut feed on prebiotics, a type of plant-based fiber that comes from whole foods like apples, onions, garlic, bananas, and oats.

The bad guys, on the other hand, love to feast on sugar. When you consume too much sugar and sweetener, the bad microbes in your gut thrive while the beneficial microbes dwindle. If your balance becomes too disrupted, you may experience digestive discomfort ranging from cramps to a full-blown digestive disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome or leaky gut.

Our gut bacteria love complex carbohydrates like fiber, which they use as a fuel source. A big problem with high-sugar diets is that they’re usually low in fiber. For example, people who consume too much sugar on a regular basis may opt for white bread instead of whole or sprouted grains, or drink orange juice instead of eating an orange.

A low-fiber diet with lots of sugar can deprive the good microbes of food they need to thrive, which could offset your bacterial balance and reduce diversity in your gut. An imbalanced microbiome can further increase sugar cravings, which can lead to a cycle — eating sugar, craving sugar, and eating more sugar — that’s difficult to halt.

Dr. G says gut microbes are like 5-year-olds: Once they get started on sugar, they can’t get enough.

Should I stop eating sugar?

Before you run to your pantry to oust any and all sugary snacks, remember that some sweet treats can have a healthy place in your diet. Dark chocolate, for example, contains many flavanols and phytonutrients that your gut bacteria can ferment into helpful anti-inflammatory compounds, and honey is a great prebiotic.

Fruits also provide your body with vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients that are helpful for establishing a healthy colony of good microbes in your gut.

It’s best to avoid large amounts of high-sugar processed foods, such as cookies and candy. If you use sweeteners, opt for natural ones whenever you can. Honey, maple, stevia, agave, and natural fruit juice in moderate quantities are fantastic options.

The reality is, everyone is bound to come across a sweet treat now and then that’s hard to resist — and that’s okay. As long as you aim to follow a healthy eating pattern most of the time, with a focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains, your gut should enjoy a healthy balance of helpful microbial residents.

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