by Dr. Will Cole
Think about what you crave on a regular basis. We are a society that loves our sweet stuff. Do you have a sweet tooth and just need chocolate sometimes? Maybe you crave the sugar of carb-rich pastas and bread?
My job in functional medicine is to get to the root cause of health issues, and our love for all things sugary and sweet is a major factor in losing weight, balancing your mood, and gaining freedom from food addictions.
You guys sent in over 500 questions about sugar, and we handpicked a few that appeared over and over to answer. Without further ado, here’s the 411 on all things sweet and carby:
1. How many grams of sugar per day is healthy to consume? (including naturally occurring fruit sugars & milk sugars)? – Nicole from Buffalo, NY
That depends on a few factors:
- The source of your sugars.
- Your individual tolerance to sugar.
Not all sources of sugar or carbohydrates are created equal. Are you getting your sugar from candy or a sweet potato, berries or whole-milk yogurt, which have other nutrients to balance out the impact of the natural sugars?
There are two ways to measure carbohydrates. Net carbs include all sugars minus the fiber content of the foods that you are eating. Total carbs, on the other hand, counts both soluble and insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber can’t be absorbed by the body and therefore has minimal, if any, effect on your blood sugar. Insoluble fiber has actually been shown to lower blood sugar levels!
Beyond that, we each have a different tolerance to carbs. Some people can eat a diet based in whole-food carbs such as fruits, vegetables, and cold-pressed juices and do great! Others might need to moderate their sugar intake a bit more to reach a state of optimal health. I always recommend really checking in with your body after consuming high-carb or high-sugar foods and seeing how you feel – and whenever you eat carbs or sugar, mitigate their impact by consuming them with protein and/or fiber.
For most people, sticking to whole-food sugars and limiting added sugars keeps them in a good range. I recommend clients try to stay below 50 grams of net carbs a day of both added and naturally occurring sugars.
2. How does sugar affect hormonal balance? – Melissa from Austin, Texas
Insulin (a type of hormone) works to regulate blood sugar and bring it down back to normal after ingesting any type of sugar, whether it’s added or naturally occurring. In its normal-functioning state, the release of insulin is a healthy, necessary response – it’s when you eat too much sugar and flood your body with insulin that things get out of whack and your blood sugar begins to have trouble regulating itself.
When your blood sugar is chronically unbalanced, it can directly affect our HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, which controls your body’s release of cortisol and leads to adrenal fatigue. When your blood sugar is high, cortisol is also high and vice versa. The problem happens when unbalanced blood sugar causes cortisol to be unbalanced as well – this is one of the top contributors to adrenal fatigue. Excess sugar is also inflammatory, which further feeds hormonal imbalance.
3. There is a lot of controversy about “natural” sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, molasses, agave, and stevia. Are these sweeteners safe? – Leah from Denver, CO
Honey, maple syrup, molasses, dates, and fresh fruit juice are some of the best sweeteners you can use in limited amounts. Stevia, xylitol, and monk fruit are also fine low-carb options but in excess can cause some digestive symptoms like bloating. The key with all sweeteners is moderation! Do your best, then don’t stress.
4. How do you know if your blood sugar levels are out of whack? What impact does sugar consumption have on this, and how can you fix it? – Elizabeth from Brooklyn, NY
There are quite a few symptoms that can point to a blood sugar imbalance such as:
- You have insatiable sugar cravings that just don’t go away even after consuming sweets.
- Missing a meal makes you “hangry,” lightheaded, and jittery.
- You have trouble losing weight.
- You are often thirsty.
- You pee a lot.
- You have blurry vision.
- You deal with brain fog on a regular basis.
Excess sugar consumption just exacerbates your symptoms. When your blood sugar is elevated, your pancreas releases insulin to bring blood sugar levels back to normal. If you are consistently bombarding your body with sugar, your pancreas is constantly working to get your blood sugar back to normal. This can lead to insulin resistance and the inability for your body to use insulin properly to regulate blood sugar. If you do have unbalanced blood sugar, you can do a number of things to fix it, from supplementing with magnesium, vitamin D, and chromium to increasing your probiotic intake to reducing your stress levels. For a list of my top ways to balance blood sugar, check out my article on the subject.
5. How does sugar work inside your body to contribute to acne? – Kaitlyn from Wisconsin
Oftentimes acne is a sign of poor microbiome health. Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and in functional medicine we see acne as just an inflammatory response of the immune system through the gut-skin axis.
Eating too many high-sugar foods can feed yeast and bacteria overgrowth, which can lead to candida overgrowth and contribute to chronic inflammation, and that chronic inflammation can result in inflamed skin – i.e., acne. The best way to take care of your skin is to take care of your gut, eating foods with less sugar, tons of fiber, and consuming lots of probiotics, which help bring down the overall levels of inflammation in your gut.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.
I originally wrote this article for mindbodygreen.