How Sugar Damages Your Immune System + How to Cut It Out
By Elizabeth Leppart, MS, LN
April 7, 2020
Most people are aware that eating sugar has negative consequences to our health, leading to things like obesity and diabetes. However, most haven’t made the connection that it also has an effect on our immune system. A big impact at that – immune function decreases for hours after sugar is consumed. A research study done by Loma Linda University in which participants were fed different forms of sugar found that the effectiveness of white blood cells (our immune cells which fight infection) decreased up to 50% after 1-2 hours of eating sugar, lasting up to five hours! (1) Yikes.
It’s ironic, but at a time when we should be avoiding sugar many people are using quarantine time to bake, bake, bake. And while I understand this is a comfort measure for many, it’s simply not worth the added stress it puts on your immune systems. You can still have fun in the kitchen when you replace those cookies and cakes with Chocolatey Fat Bombs and Oatmeal Almond Balls. Both are delicious, small snacks that are free of processed sugar and full of nutrients designed to keep your body functioning at its best ability.
You may be thinking you’re in the clear because you avoid sugary treats like soda or the abovementioned baked goods … but you may want to think again. If you’re consuming any processed food like bagels, pizza, crackers or popcorn (just to name a few), you’re consuming sugar without knowing it as all processed foods break down into sugar in our blood stream. To understand how much sugar you’re consuming, all it takes is a simple equation; four grams of any carbohydrate breaks down into one teaspoon of sugar in our blood. For example, one cup of cooked plain spaghetti is about 43 grams of carbohydrate, which breaks down into almost 11 teaspoons of sugar. If you were to replace the spaghetti with one cup of zucchini noodles at 3.7 grams per cup, it would equate to less than one teaspoon of sugar!
According to Dr. Mark Hyman’s book Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?, “Some estimates from US government surveys say that the average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar and about 133 pounds of flour [which convert to sugar] annually. That’s more than a third of a pound per person per day.” (2) This is because 75% of processed foods also have added hidden sugars! Some of the biggest culprits of hidden sugar are condiments like ketchup and BBQ sauce, salad dressings, crackers, pasta sauces, and vegetable juices. Try reading labels of products in your pantry or next time you’re at the grocery store to see where sugar is hiding.
Let’s turn this around, instead of focusing on what we don’t want to eat (sugar), let’s focus on what we can eat to support our immune systems – delicious real foods (This includes butter, bacon and fresh guacamole, just to name a few of my favorites!). What counts as real food? Think about this, real vegetables are free of added sugar, real fruit is free of added sugar, meat and fish are free of sugar and natural fats are free of sugar. Check out this recent blog post, What to Eat to Support Your Immune System + What to Skip to look at all the benefits these foods provide your immune system (and mood, which is also critical during this stressful time). By adding real foods we crowd out room for processed, sugary foods. One of the things I hear most often from clients and class participants is how amazed they are that their cravings are totally gone. Gone! After struggling to control cravings for sometimes decades, it only took a few days of eating real food in balance to notice their cravings begin to vanish. This is because eating real protein, fat, and carbs in balance throughout the day stabilizes our blood sugar. When our blood sugar is stable, we feel calm and satisfied, so we are not wandering back into the kitchen for another snack.
To really hit home all that you can eat, here’s a sample menu of a typical day of eating that’s free of sugar and loaded with flavor and health. Rather than a breakfast that consists of low-fat yogurt and a muffin, which are mostly made up of sugar, try making scrambled eggs and vegetables with butter or coconut oil. For lunch, instead of a sandwich and potato chips (remember that the bread and chips will break down into sugar), have a bowl of hamburger soup with sour cream and slices of avocado. For dinner, swap out the pasta (Remember that breaks down into sugar!) and sugar-laden sauce, with spiralized garlic veggie noodles cooked with fresh tomatoes, herbs, and topped with instant pot garlic herb chicken. Sounds very appetizing right this minute! Check out more real food recipes.
If you think this all sounds great and all … but you’ve tried to give up sugar in the past to no avail, we can help with that. I and the other nutritionists and dietitians at Nutritional Weight & Wellness have helped clients break free of their sugar addiction for years. During the coronavirus pandemic we are counseling clients via phone or video and are here to help you conquer cutting out sugar, support your immune system, manage anxiety or whatever other health goals you may have. Be in touch; we’re here to help.
(2) Hyman, Mark. Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? New York, NY, Little, Brown Spark, 2018.