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Not Just a Sweet Treat: How Sugar Causes Disease on a Root Level

Does sugar cause inflammation? What is the link between inflammation and sugar? 

White sugar has plenty of reasons to be on the “bad for you” list, and today we’re with Dr. Madiha Saeed, MD digging into the issue of white sugar and inflammation. That’s right – all those sweets don’t just mess with your gut and affect mental health; white sugar causes disease at a root level.

White sugar, a mainstay in birthday celebrations everywhere, isn’t good for kids (as nutritionist Jess Sherman made so clear recently), but it’s also not good for adult humans!

white sugar cubes

Inflammation and Sugar 

White sugar is ubiquitous in our society and wreaking havoc on our health. I’m thrilled to introduce you to my friend Madiha Saeed, M.D., who will talk us through how refined sugar causes inflammation, why inflammation is the root of so many diseases affecting modern humans, the insulin resistance problem, and finally, the difference between white, refined sugar and natural sugars when it comes to our health.

I guarantee you or someone you know is battling one of these diseases caused by white sugar and inflammation, and I bet the doctor isn’t calling it out as a root cause.

You’ll be educated and uplifted by this guest post and interview — you can’t help it once you hear Dr. Saeed get passionate!

White Sugar is Everywhere

Our bodies, our lives, are bombarded with sugar. We literally live in a culture of sugar.

Every holiday. Every treat. Every celebration. Even a trip to the doctors!

When the kids come after their appointments from the doctor’s office, every child is given a Dum-Dum. I don’t want my kid to have that! It’s like reinforcing, “Okay, here you go, you’re going to get sick again, you might come back.”

It’s terrible!

child with lollipop

Our culture and everything that we’re seeing on the media and advertising and TV all revolves around sugar and food. An estimated 74% of packaged foods have sugar. Why?

Because we know that sugar stimulates the brain reward centers, through all these neurotransmitters.

White Sugar and Inflammation in the Body

Sugar leads to inflammation because your body doesn’t know what to do with it.

Inflammation literally means “the fire inside.” It’s a hot, fierce, lifesaving reaction that occurs when your body’s immune system tries to fight off infection, heal from injuries, or protect you from disease.

Acute inflammation is a good thing and lasts a few seconds to a few days.

The problem is chronic inflammation, which lasts indefinitely. Chronic inflammation gradually destroys this magnificent masterpiece that we were born with.

too much sugar = inflammation and disease

This hidden, smoldering fire is trying to fight off your body’s exposure to unhealthy foods and other modern-day toxins.

Doctors aren’t taught how to deal with inflammation. They’re only taught to Band-Aid it, probably with a pharmaceutical.

If we want to fight the inflammation from sugar, we have to start cutting it out.

How Does Sugar Cause Inflammation? Bad Bacteria Love Sugar

Our gut has 70-80% of our immune system. It has 100 trillion bacteria; we need these nice and balanced in order for everything to work properly. So if you have more good bacteria, everything works well.

But if you start adding sugar, you start killing off the good bacteria and it gets replaced by bad bacteria. Now you have an overgrowth of bad bacteria.

Bad bacteria thrive on sugar. This leads to a vicious cycle: the bacteria want more sugar, we eat more sugar, more bad bacteria grow and on and on.

This imbalance of the microbiome then leads to more inflammation. It also interferes with the ability of your white blood cells. They can’t destroy toxins. They can’t fight off infections. So you get sicker and sicker.

Katie here: When my kids are sick, we always tell them they can’t have sugar because it feeds the bad bugs and makes it like a germ party, but we don’t want the germs to stay, we want them to go away!

Stomach pain

If that wasn’t crazy enough, all of this can happen within minutes of eating sugar. Minutes! And that effect can last several hours. Many people say, “Oh, it’s just one time. It’s just for today. It’s fine.”

But it’s not fine. It’s not just this one time; the effect really lasts.

RELATED: How to take care of your gut microbiome. Especially after too much sugar!

White Sugar’s Effect on Insulin and Blood Sugar

Your cells need sugar and glucose for energy. But the only way that this sugar and glucose can actually enter the cell is if it has a key. And that key is called insulin. It’s released by your pancreas.

Insulin is released when you eat a carbohydrate (like sugar), and it’s the key that opens the cell’s door, lets the glucose in, and everybody’s healthy and happy.

Over time, what happens is that sugar or the processed foods that we’re eating, plus the chronic stress so many of us deal with, all keep our blood sugar level elevated. And when our blood sugar level is elevated, that leads to an increase in your insulin levels.

Then because your insulin levels are elevated all the time, your body’s like, “Psshh, I don’t need to keep on listening to them.” Then the sugar that it needs for energy does not enter the cell.

And what happens? Your cells stop listening to the insulin; your pancreas starts to push out more and more and more insulin.

This leads to a state called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance leads to brain fog, sugar crashes, carb cravings, weight gain around the midsection; it increases your appetite and sugar cravings, leads to fatty liver, and that actually can become deadly.

woman eating chocolate

Insulin resistance can also lead to type 2 diabetes. We are seeing more and more diabetes in kids.

Adult diseases are becoming child diseases, and that’s really, really scary.

Inflammation and Sugar: The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster

I’m just not giving white sugar to my kids. For their health, and for my own sanity. I don’t want to deal with the mood swings and increase in appetite that sugar brings on.

You know how you have these kids that are screaming, and they’re like, “I need food! I just need it!” Then they start throwing tantrums. Often this is ups and downs of insulin levels.

Ten years ago, before I cut sugar out of our home, my child did have his temper tantrums, like crying in the grocery store because he needed something to eat.

But I’ve found that when they don’t have sugar, my kids became normal human beings. So do this for yourself, do this for your children.

Ready to kick your sugar addiction? This course from mindbodygreen will help you understand your emotional ties to sugar, give you new recipes to swap out your favorite treats and snacks, and motivate you to ditch your sugar cravings for good. Get started today!

How White Sugar is Different From Natural Sugars

There’s definitely a difference between processed sugar and natural sugars like those found in dairy and fruit.

Fructose from fruit is combined with fiber so it doesn’t actually raise your blood sugar level. It’s when you have the free fructose, like from high fructose corn syrup, running through your body that issues begin.

Note from Katie: That’s why I started trying to serve fruit for dessert years ago…

These issues include fatty liver, pre-diabetes, and diabetes. I believe high fructose corn syrup is deadly.

Remember, not all foods are created equally. Not all energy is created equally. Not all calories are created equally.

Tons of processed sugar can lead to obesity, inflammation, heart disease, even dementia in older people, premature death, impaired glucose tolerance, hypertension. Basically it’s all bad.

Honey and maple syrup are so much better for you. They don’t affect blood sugar in the same way as white sugar, and with them, a little goes a long way.


Health Benefits of Honey

I make brownies with honey. Honey is the least processed sugar sweetener, full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It lowers inflammation and actually aids the gut by acting as a prebiotic. It neutralizes free radicals improving allergies, coughs, and asthma. This has all been proven.

Remember if you’re going to just have honey, have raw manuka honey.

RELATED: How to bake with honey!

Health Benefits of Maple Syrup

Maple syrup has tons of antioxidants. It actually decreases your blood plasma glucose levels, protects your microbiome, and even protects you against cancer.

Of course, moderation is key. We don’t want to overload on natural sweeteners either.

We’re talking about replacing the sugar for a healthier, more nutrient-dense food versus just trying to take it out completely because that’s never going to work.

I have four boys, ages 12 to 4. They go to a Saturday school where there are 500 kids. All of them are eating pizza; my kids are the only ones bringing lunch from home.

Healthy Snacks To Go eBook

If taking real food on the go is a challenge for you, you’re not alone.

Join thousands of other happy owners of Healthy Snacks to Go, an eBook that is helping real foodies everywhere keep their families nourished (and kids happy) even when they need to pack a snack — without resorting to processed junk food or expensive health food store treats.

With over a dozen different “bar” recipes alone, including many that are grain-free and contain zero refined sugar, I guarantee you’ll find a new family favorite in Healthy Snacks to Go.

Baking them little muffins, brownies, and cookies with different types of sugars keeps them from feeling left out and deprived. They don’t notice the difference between those and regular, packaged treats.

It’s a win-win for child and parent.

RELATED: Grab 45 non-food birthday ideas for classroom treats and be part of the movement toward healthier celebrations!

Sugar Inflammation: Hope for the Future

Is there hope for repairing the inflammation that causes disease? I think so. Everyone is different, so one solution isn’t going to work for everyone. But I hit on some pieces of the puzzle that are a great starting place.

Replace your sugars with nutrient-dense foods. We can basically crowd out the bad bacteria with good foods like tons of fruit, vegetables, healthy fats and clean protein, bone broth, fish oil, Vitamin D, and probiotics.

knee pain

Make sure every food that enters your body helps heal the gut, balances hormones like insulin, and is nutrient-dense. Sugar doesn’t fit any of these criteria.

Once you start with the basics (and don’t forget to include spiritual health, stress relief, sleep, and social health), your body can start putting itself into balance.

Have you replaced white sugar with healthier alternatives?

Additional References on Inflammation and Sugar 

Madiha SaeedMadiha Saeed, MD, aka HolisticMom, MD, is a board-certified family physician, best-selling author of The Holistic Rx: Your Guide to Healing Chronic Inflammation and Disease, director of education of Documenting Hope, currently publishing a children’s book, called My Healing Day: Your Child’s Guide to Healing Sickness and Staying Healthy.

She writes regularly for Holistic Primary Care and is on the Wellness Mama and Mommypotomous medical advisory board. She is putting together the first Family Health Expo, a fun holistic wellness event for families. She speaks internationally igniting the world with her passion to ignite a healing revolution! During her international talks, she is in direct connections with world leaders and has been asked to speak to an audience of 40,000 for the United Nations.

She has appeared in numerous prestigious holistic online summits, conferences (even Dr. Terry Wahl’s conference, Academy of Integrated Health and Medicine). She is a regular on the international Emmy winning medical talk shows, the Dr. Nandi Show, radio and print media. Her exquisite and vast audience puts her in contact with the most elite of patients including world leaders from the United Nations and Turkey.

Find Dr. Saeed online here and get her FREE healing bundle here.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

About The Author

3 thoughts on “Not Just a Sweet Treat: How Sugar Causes Disease on a Root Level”

  1. Is there any way you could share recipes for treats where honey or maple syrup is substituted for white sugar?

    1. Carolyn @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Hi Claire, Most of the recipes here use honey or maple syrup to sweeten: Hope you find something you’d like to try!

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