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Sugar and digestion
Most people link carbohydrates with energy and, yes, it is true that the human body is designed to
run on carbohydrates. While we can use protein and fat as an alternative fuel source,
carbohydrates are best suited to the job.
When we eat carbohydrates derived from plants and vegetation, we break it down (in the
presence of oxygen) and release the stored solar energy, which then provides energy for the body
Complex carbohydrates and fibre
When you eat complex carbohydrates (like whole grains, vegetables, legumes) or the simpler forms of carbohydrate found
in, for example, fruit, the body recognises these and knows exactly what to do - digest them and slowly release their
What’s more, all of the nutrients (including digestive enzymes) that the body needs for efficient digestion and metabolism
are present in those whole foods. They also naturally contain a less digestible (yet highly beneficial) type of carbohydrate,
classified as fibre, which helps to keep the digestive system running smoothly.
So what’s the problem?
Humans are inherently attracted to the sweet taste of carbohydrates which, from an evolutionary perspective, worked in
our favour as it kept us away from most poisonous plants in nature. The trouble first arose when we discovered how to
extract the sweetness, leaving the rest of the ‘good stuff’ behind.
All forms of concentrated sugar (including white sugar, brown sugar, glucose, honey etc) are fast-releasing, which means
that they cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. These blood sugar swings then overwork the adrenal glands, pancreas
and liver. Left unchecked, this can lead to diabetes and other health problems (such as digestive disorders).
Unlike natural sources of sugar, such as fruit, most concentrated and refined forms of sugar are devoid of nutrients. For
instance, white sugar has approximately 90% of its vitamins and minerals removed in processing. Without a good supply of
a broad spectrum of nutrients on a daily basis, our metabolism becomes sluggish, contributing to low energy levels and
poor weight control.
Examples of simple sugars that are quickly digested
Foods containing glucose and fructose (such as fruit and corn) and sucrose, dextrose, maltose and lactose (such as white
sugar, brown sugar, over-cooked grains, honey and milk products) are all examples of simple sugars that are digested
quickly and lead to rapid increases in blood sugar levels.
Examples of complex carbohydrates that are digested slowly
Polysaccharides or starches (such as grains, lentils, beans, potatoes and vegetables) and indigestible polysaccharides -
cellulose or fibre (found in grains, lentils, beans and vegetables) are examples of complex carbohydrates which release
their energy more slowly and therefore do not cause spikes in blood sugar levels.
Sugar and digestion
Sugar is the enemy of efficient digestion in a number of different ways.
Food for pathogens
A healthy digestive tract depends on maintaining the delicate balance between friendly bacteria on the one hand, and bad
bacteria and other harmful pathogens on the other hand. The best way to feed a gut infection is to eat plenty of sugar. For
instance, yeast-like organisms such as Candida albicans thrive on a high-sugar diet.
A high intake of sugar while suffering with digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome can lead to excessive
flatulence, bloating, abdominal pains and constipation or diarrhoea.
Toxic load and fat levels
The body produces acetates (a derivative of acetic acid) when processing sugars - these are highly toxic if not ‘mopped up’
quickly, so they are dealt with by enzymes that convert them to saturated fatty acids and cholesterol. If this sugar is not
immediately required by the body, it is stored (eventually emerging as fat). The only way to get rid of this kind of fatty
deposit is through exercise!
Sugars of all kinds are also highly acidic. For the efficient delivery of balanced nutrients to the cells of the body, the pH
balance of blood should ideally be neutral, or slightly alkaline. However, acid-forming foods produce an acid end product
following digestion and metabolism - these acids then have to be neutralised. This is done by the alkaline mineral salts:
calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium, all found in raw fruits and vegetables.
An imbalance toward too much acidity allows yeasts, viruses and other parasites to thrive. Acidity in the body can also
contribute to conditions such as chronic fatigue, arthritis and allergies.
Inflammation in the body, gut permeability and food allergies
Scientists have long linked inflammatory bowel disease (as well as a host of other conditions, such as oedema and
arthritis) with inflammation in the body. One of the major causes of inflammation is a high intake of sugar.
Every time we eat as little as two teaspoons of sugar, we run the risk of disrupting our body chemistry and homeostasis -
the delicate balance needed for efficient maintenance and repair.
For instance, sugar can affect the interaction of minerals. No mineral works in isolation; they can only function in relation to
one another. When blood levels of one mineral drop, it makes it more likely that other minerals cannot function as well
and/or can become toxic or deficient.
Similarly, one of the body processes for which enzymes are important is digestion. They help to break food down into
smaller molecules, so that nutrients can then move easily from the digestive tract into the bloodstream. However, enzymes
cannot function without minerals and you can also deplete the body’s enzyme reserves when you eat sugar. Insufficient
enzymes directly affect the efficiency of the digestive process.
Poor digestion can lead to partially digested food molecules entering the blood stream. This is now widely referred to as
leaky gut syndrome or gut permeability and has been linked to the development of food sensitivities and allergies.
The immune system views partially digested protein molecules (peptides) as ‘foreign invaders’ and responds the only way
it knows how - with inflammation. Depending on where this partially digested protein goes in the body, inflammation can set
in any organ or tissue.
The partially digested protein is in particles that are too large to be used by the cells. One outcome is that these particles
can cause the classic symptoms of allergy, the inflammatory response - for example, streaming eyes, sinusitis, sneezing
and scratchy throat. These particles can also go to the joints, tissues or bones and contribute to the development of
How does sugar affect the digestive system?