SAY NO TO SUGAR AND DAIRY
When it comes to loving your gut, knowing what not to put on your plate is as important as knowing what to eat. If you’re pushing the RESET button on your gut, removing foods that cause inflammation or promote the growth of unhealthy bacteria is imperative. Two foods that are common culprits of poor gut health are sugar and dairy. These “frenemy” foods pose as allies, providing mouth-watering pleasure, but are often working behind the scenes to unravel your health. Sugar feeds unhealthy microbial colonies in the gut and suppresses growth of the good guys leading to dysbiosis, while dairy can cause poor digestion and systemic inflammation.
FEEDING THE TROUBLE MAKERS IN YOUR GUT
Hidden refined sugars are commonplace in today’s Western diets. Processed foods like bread, condiments, snack bars, cereal and sweetened “health” beverages provide unnecessary sugar and calories. However, excess sugar is doing more than adding unwanted pounds. Refined sugars are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream in the upper intestinal tract immediately increasing blood sugar levels and forcing the body to respond with the hormone insulin to balance blood sugar. Regularly eating refined sugar and carbs not only disrupts hormone balance, it affects the balance of gut microbes as well. Dr. Christine Northrup explains that unlike fiber, a carbohydrate that reaches the colon and feeds healthy bacteria, refined sugars feed toxic microbes like Candida Albicans and other fungus. She goes onto explain that a diet that is high in refined sugar and low in fiber starves out healthy bacteria causing them to munch on your intestinal cells which can lead to intestinal permeability and a series of unwanted symptoms. Feeding unhealthy microbes is a fast route to feeling awful and experiencing symptoms of gut dysbiosis.
While there is plenty of research supporting that dairy can be beneficial to human health, for many people dairy can be a source of agony. As Chris Kresser notes in his blog addressing the many conflicting views over dairy, not all dairy is created equally and neither are all people. Research indicates that 65% -75% of adult humans do not digest dairy well due to reduced production of lactase in the intestines. Lactase is the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose, the sugar found in dairy. When lactose is left undigested in the gut, many experience symptoms of bloating, diarrhea, constipation, pain, and nausea. An intolerance to lactose can also be a sign that the microbiome is imbalanced and that gut dysbiosis is present. Mark’s Daily Apple makes the point that the beneficial gut bacteria lactobacillus is responsible, in part, for producing lactase. If unhealthy microbes have taken over and diminished the colonies of lactobacillus, there may be increased sensitivity to dairy.
Aside from lactose, casein is also a common culprit of dairy intolerance causing symptoms of food sensitivity (1). While lactose is the sugar found in dairy, casein is one of two protein families found in dairy (whey is the second but much less likely to cause sensitivity). One form of casein has been shown to instigate big problems for countless people. Research has shown that consuming A1 ?-casein can induce digestive symptoms similar to lactose intolerance but can also cause severe gut inflammation leading to symptoms ranging from constipation to pain or slow cognitive processing, aka “brain fog” (2). Other symptoms linked to casein consumption include acne, arthritis, and neurological conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression.
CUTTING SUGAR, ONE GRAM AT A TIME
Cutting sugar can be tough. If you are not ready to give up your after dinner treat, begin my removing hidden sugars that you won’t even miss. This can be done by replacing common foods like condiments, prepared foods, and snacks with lower-sugar options. Start by reading labels when you are choosing groceries. At first this can take extra time, but it is worth it. There are two main areas on a food label that provide information about sugar content; Nutrition Facts and Ingredients.
Nutrition Facts provide the grams of total carbohydrate. This number includes starch, fiber and sugar. Under Total Carbohydrates, you will find Dietary Fiber and Sugars. New proposed labeling would also indicate Added Sugars.
Fiber is a carbohydrate that has many benefits to digestion including traveling undigested (which means it does not provide energy to you) to the colon where many healthy microbes use it for fuel. Starch is a complex carbohydrate found in plant foods that your body slowly digests offering sustained energy and blood sugar. The number of starch grams is not listed on a food label but can be calculated by subtracting sugar and fiber from total carbohydrate. However, the number to focus on is the grams of sugar. Sugar can be included from added sources like cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup or naturally occurring sugars such as fructose or lactose from fruit or dairy. Healthy carbs have more fiber and starch than sugar. Compare many different brands of the foods you love to find the option with the lowest grams of sugar. Try comparing soups or cereals next time you are shopping. Every gram makes a difference and by comparing labels, you may be able to reduce 20, 30, 40 or more grams of sugar per day. The point is to cut back wherever possible! Be advised, that women should eat no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day, however, that may still be too much if you are experiencing gut-related symptoms.
The other key information to look at is the ingredient list. Sugar should not be within the first 3-5 ingredients. The ingredients are listed by weight from heavy to light so if the first few ingredients include sugar, your food is mostly made up of sugar. Food companies are tricky and many use 3 or 4 different types of sugar to disperse the weight so they can list the ingredients later in their list as to not draw attention. There are many different names for sugar and it is wise to briefly review them to become familiar.
Beware that sugar replacements can be dangerous to the gut as well. In fact, common sugar substitutes like aspartame and sucralose have been linked to microbiome changes that induce hormone changes and obesity. One sugar substitute, stevia, has a good reputation as a healthy alternative. Stevia is a South American herb and has intensified natural sweetness without the inflammatory calories or gut damage that accompany sugar. When purchasing stevia, look for products that do not contain other harmful additives.
Most importantly, sugar should be used in moderation. Aside from stevia, healthier options include small amounts of whole food sweeteners like honey, molasses, maple syrup, or coconut sugar. Choosing sugar sources that are less refined means that they still contain micro nutrients within the sugar product and therefor provide some nutritional benefit.
CURB SUGAR AND DAIRY CRAVINGS AND START THE DAY RIGHT
Starting the day without sugar and dairy is a great way to reduce intake and begin to break the habit. Eating sugar for breakfast begins a roller coaster of energy highs and lulls throughout the day that promote continuous sugar cravings. Because sugar provides a quick burst of energy but is digested really quickly, a sugar-sweetened breakfast will leave you feeling hungry and tired before you reach lunch. For most people, this starts a feedback loop of reaching for more simple carbs and extra cups of coffee followed by afternoon exhaustion. Caffeine exacerbates the problem by affecting cortisol levels and energy throughout the day. So if you starting your day with a caffeinated beverage, reducing sugar in the morning is a move in the right direction to managing energy and hormone balance.
Cutting dairy at breakfast is a great start but if you are trying to assess whether or not your gut is struggling with dairy, you need to cut it completely for 30 days and then add it back in methodically. Many people that struggle with dairy digestion can tolerate raw cheese, sheep or goat dairy, or fermented dairy like yogurt, but it is best to remove all dairy for a month to see if symptoms resolve and digestion improves. If you are going to test your tolerance to dairy after 30 days, add one product in at a time (i.e. yogurt, then sheep cheese, etc.) eating each one consistently for 3-4 days. It is best to keep a journal and make mention of what you have eaten and any symptoms that arise, even if you think they are unrelated.
A DAIRY AND SUGAR-FREE BREAKFAST
Protein slows digestion and helps you feel full longer. Although it is not the body’s preferred source of fuel, it will help you absorb carbs more slowly offering sustained energy.
Fuel with Fat
Fat also slows digestion and triggers satiety in the brain. Fat does not increase blood sugar levels and helps to provide consistent energy.
Fill-up on Fiber
Fiber is also helpful in slowing digestion, expanding in the gut to help you feel full longer. Fiber feeds healthy bacteria and promotes good digestion.
BREAKFAST, “BREAK YOUR FAST” WITH THESE FILLING FOODS
Vegetables don’t need to be reserved for lunch and dinner. Leading nutrition scientists recommend 9-13 servings of vegetables per day. So start early by adding greens or other nutrient dense veggies to your breakfast routine. Vegetables are superfoods because they provide condensed nutrients, beneficial phytochemicals, and fiber while typically being low in calories.
Eggs are versatile and a great source of fat and protein. Most of the nutrition is stored in the yolks so don’t opt for egg whites alone. To really maximize an “eggy” breakfast, add veggies! This can be done by making frittata, scrambles, omelets or throwing eggs over a sweet potato topped with greens, salsa and avocado!
Oats are a dense cereal grain that provide the trifecta of fiber, protein and fat. Oats can be cooked up quickly in the morning or prepared in a crockpot overnight. Oats are a foundation of a filling breakfast but make sure to dress them up with “gut-loving” toppings like seeds, nuts, non-dairy milk, and dried or fresh fruit. If you are feeling rebellious, check out this list of savory oatmeal recipes! (Remember to look for gluten-free oats if you have a gluten sensitivity).
Most people don’t immediately think of beans when they imagine breakfast, but beans are a great source of protein, complex carbs, and fiber. This means, you will be filled with energy and sustained until lunch. Check out this awesome article for some legume-based breakfast inspiration.
Dropping sugar and dairy can be overwhelming but don’t get discouraged! Your gut will thank you for every step that you make in the right direction. Once the habit is kicked, the cravings disappear and life without sugar and dairy means more energy, better digestion, and a healthier gut!
She earned a B.S. in Dietetics from Kansas State University and an M.S. in Nutrition and Functional Medicine from University of Western States. She is also a Certified Yoga Instructor. As owner of Pep Wellness, a nutrition coaching and consulting business, Megan’s passion lies in sharing her love of food, wellness, and science through writing and working directly with clients to help them connect with their bodies & achieve optimal health.