The Sour Side of Sugar:Breaking the Sugar Habit for Better Health

Candy canes and colds. Those are my husband’s memories of Christmas. Whenever we reminisce about our childhoods, my husband delights in raving about his mother’s talent for baking. Weak-kneed at the remembrance of her weekly desserts, his eyes glaze over when he describes her Yuletide pantry of sugar-laced divinity cookies, plum pudding, gooey strawberry treats and brownies.

He also recalls her attentiveness during his regular bout with holiday colds and flu. Tall, cool glasses of ginger ale and frosty popsicles were served to strengthen and soothe him during his suffering. But unbeknownst to his mother–and caretakers everywhere– sugar, a common comfort for the ailing, invites, rather than eases, the throes of illness. Sugar isn’t as sweet as it seems.

Everyone knows that eating too much sugar is associated with tooth decay and gaining weight. However, according to scientific research, sugar’s health effects reach well beyond your teeth and belly. Too many sweets may increase your risk of Crohn’s disease (1) and heart disease (2), up uric acid levels (associated with gout) (2), promote diabetes (3), jack up your appetite (4) and could even take years off your life (5). There’s also evidence that sugar greatly impacts one of the most important systems of your body–the immune system.

Killing me Slowly with Sugar

The immune system is the body’s protective force against foreign invaders including viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi, toxins, pollutants and even cancer. The skin, mucous membranes and body surface secretions are the initial buttresses that fend off assailants. If these guards are over thrown, then a cavalry of white blood cells and antibody-producing B cells gallop to the rescue.

A study from the journal Dental Survey investigated sugar’s effect on bacteria-hungry white blood cells called neutrophils. This experiment found that consuming 24 ounces of cola depresses neutrophil activity by 50 percent. This occurs thirty minutes after ingestion and lasts for five hours–possibly longer (6). Other parts of the immune system may be similarly assaulted by sugar (7).

This is particularly distressing news considering how hospital patients are fed. When I worked in the dietary department of a large hospital, it was routine to serve operation candidates pop, jello, ice cream and custard. The hospital dietitians rationalized that surgical patients needed easy-to-digest foods. They didn’t know that hefty doses of sugar could drag down their patient’s immunity at a time when they needed it the most. There’s lots of other examples of the sick being nursed back to health with sweets. How many times did your mother offer you 7-Up and ginger ale for an upset stomach? And isn’t ice cream the favorite soother after a tonsillectomy?

We’ve all been taught to guzzle orange juice for it’s vitamin C, which is great for the sniffles. Unfortunately, most orange juice brands sorely lacking in this nutrient due to processing and packaging. And the juice itself can actually lower your resistance because of its high fructose content. In a study published in a 1973 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, A. Sanchez showed that 100 carbohydrate grams worth of orange juice (equal to about 32 ounces) lowers white blood cell activity for at least five hours (honey and table sugar, Sanchez found, had similar effects).

Sugar and Spice

How did sugar become a convalescent celebrity? Mary Poppins advised that “just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” because remedies generally tasted awful. Later, the sugar became the remedy. In the 1940s and 50s, candy and soft drink manufacturers commonly advertised in prominent medical journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association. The American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages urged physicians to treat their undernourished patients with soda. The Council on Candy said confectionery treats are a nutritious addition to a child’s diet. We now know, of course, that that’s not true.

Sugar High

Unfortunately, most kids still indulge in high-sugar foods as often as possible, and parents regularly complain that sugar makes their children “hyper”. Does sugar really cause youngsters to go berserk?

“The first thing I look at,” says Eric Jones, ND, Administration Representative of Bastyr University in Seattle “is if a child has actually been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (what used to be called hyperactivity).” According to Jones, at least 50 percent of ADD children are misdiagnosed. ADD (or ADHD as it’s often called) is a complicated and often misunderstood condition. But impulsive, uncoordinated, irritable children who can’t pay attention, cry easily or tend to withdraw may be hyperactive.

An unstable home life, food allergies, food additives, heavy metal toxicity, exposure to drugs while in the womb or even an unrecognized need for glasses may contribute to ADD. The sugar-hyperactivity may be a medical myth. In a study published in the July 1995 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, J.W. White and M. Wolraich showed that sugar and other carbohydrates actually have a calming effect, at least in adults.

Regardless of the research, Dr. Jones says at least half of his ADD patients improve when taken off sugar and other sweeteners like corn syrup, although taking candy away from a child doesn’t usually solve the whole problem, and all children react differently. A study performed at Yale University School of Medicine did provide one reason why sugar energizes some children. T.W. Jones found that sugar increases adrenaline, a stimulating hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, far more in children than in adults (12).

What’s more, sugar and caffeine can be a potent combination in kids. In a survey of 800 school children reported by J.L. Rapoport in a 1986 issue of Nutrition Reviews, those who drank a lot of caffeinated soda were more likely to be labeled hyperactive by their teachers than those who ingested less caffeine. Even food allergies and intolerances (including to sugar) may send your bouncing baby boy ricocheting off the walls.

What is Sugar?

Each American eats an average of 100 lbs of refined sugar every year (15). That’s a daily sugar dose equivalent to more than three and a half cans of coke a day. Thus the average American may be hobbling around with a chronically crippled immune system, always on the edge of a cold or some other sickness.

Once upon a time, when dietary sugar was controlled and distributed by the cook of the family, we knew what was sweetened and what was not. Since then the convenience of purchasing prepared food has replaced home cooking, and food manufacturers do most of the menu planning. Today, sugar infiltrates everything from crackers and soup to canned fruits and cereals. This omnipresent substance masquerades as sucrose, glucose, dextrose, corn syrup (and high fructose corn syrup), white and brown sugars, among others.

If your sweet tooth is getting out of hand, here are a few simple steps to take toward sugar-free eating.

  1. Identify the problem. Do you eat sugar everyday? Several times a day? If so, it’s time to cut back.

  2. Wean yourself off sugar, slowly but continuously.

  3. Learn the different names for sugar. Read labels, identify foods with sugar in them and avoid buying them.

  4. Shop in the periphery of the grocery store. Most processed foods (to which sugar has been added) are in the middle. Produce, meats and dairy foods line most stores’ outer aisles.

  5. Don’t substitute artificial sweeteners for sugar. They’re associated with other health problems and merely feed your craving for more sugar.

  6. Discover the sweetness of nature. Substitute fresh and dried fruits for sugary treats. Try herbal teas–many are naturally sweet. Drink unsweetened fruit juice mixed with seltzer instead of soft drinks.

  7. Be wary of “natural sweeteners” such as honey and brown sugar. Although many of these are less refined than white sugar (though not always), they still depress immunity.

  8. Learn how to cook and bake without sugar. Visit natural food stores for cookbook ideas, and read more about sugar’s effect on health.

Improving one’s eating is an age-old New Year’s resolution. Breaking the sugar habit and reinforcing your body’s fortress against disease take education, time and small steps. If you strolled through candy-cane lane this past holiday season, it’s time to take steps towards the path of sweet, sugar-free health. Sugarless cookie anyone?


  1. Katschinski B et al. Smoking and sugar intake are separate but interactive risk factors in Crohn’s disease. Gut 1988; 29:1202-1206.

  2. Reiser S et al. Blood lipids, lipoproteins, apoproteins, and uric acid in men fed diets containing fructose or high-amylose cornstarch. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1989;49:832-39.

  3. Beck-Nielsen H et al. Impaired cellular insulin binding and insulin sensitivity induced by high-fructose feeding in normal subjects. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1980;33:273-278.

  4. Ramirez I. When does sucrose increase appetite and adiposity? Appetite 1987;9:1-19.

  5. McDonald RB. Influence of dietary sucrose on biological aging. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1995;62(suppl):284S-93S.

  6. Ringsdorf JR et al. Sucrose, neutrophilic phagocytosis and resistance to disease. Dental Survey 1976, December:46-48.

  7. Bernstein J et al. Depression of lymphocyte transformation following oral glucose ingestion (abstract). American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1977;30:613

  8. Sanchez A. et al. Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis. The American Journal of clinical Nutrition 1973;26:1180-84.

  9. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1950, May 27: 9 (ad).

  10. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1950, May 27: 12 (ad).

  11. White JW

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Written by Lauri M. Aesoph ND

Explore Wellness in 2021