Fighting Cookie Season: Sugar and Your Gut

By Victoria Frankel


One of the best things about this holiday season is celebrating the changing weather with comfort foods like soups, hot chocolate, and freshly baked cookies. Truthfully, for many of us, this season should really be renamed our “bulking” season because of the way many of us pack on the pounds in a ritualistic celebration of family get-togethers and festivities.

If you’re wondering why it is that so many of our social gatherings seem to absolutely require sugar and fat-filled foods – well, we could spend all day discussing how humans are just another type of animal with a biological clock that recognizes winter-time and the need for stored energy to keep warm. We could also talk about the psychology of how food is a fundamental way humans (and animals) socialize and share intimate moments and love – by engaging in meals and breaking bread together. We could even discuss how many of these activities are often timeless traditions, passed from generation to generation… But no matter the why, it’s a natural human expression – and one we at Viome don’t intend on interrupting.

Joining together with friends and family and eating a little extra before the winter-time blues set in is not only normal but can often bring a sense of happiness and contentment. Some of the biggest ways in which people fall off the wagon of their new “trendy diet” are by making extremely stringent dietary restrictions. Viome knows there’s more to health than just a strict diet – it’s about embracing a healthy lifestyle, and sometimes that includes a little flexibility here and there.

In fact, studies have shown that restrictive eating can increase incidences of binge-eating, essentially sabotaging weight-loss efforts. So there’s no need to deprive yourself of holiday cheer.

What you can do, is make smart choices to limit the amount of sugar you consume.

Why is this important? Because when you incorporate too much added sugar in your diet, a lot of things happen.

1. Your “reward” system in your brain starts firing, which is addictive – quite literally

If you thought many drugs were addictive, sugar can be just as bad – if not worse! We’re programmed to be attracted to high-sugar foods because our brain runs on sugar, or specifically, glucose. Historically, anything sweet ancient humans happened upon sent off their physiological reward system called the mesolimbic dopamine system. When we eat sugar, our body begins producing high levels of dopamine – a brain chemical that associates positive behavior. The more sugar we eat, the more dopamine we produce and we can get quite addictive 1 . In fact – human brain scans of individuals with a cocaine addiction are nearly indistinguishable from long-term high sugar consumers. This is one of the reasons why we experience such strong sugar cravings.

2. Your digestive system ramps up – not your metabolism – making food pass into your GI faster leaving you feeling hungry sooner

Our rate for gastric emptying – or a fancy word for the transition of food from the stomach to the digestive tract – is heightened when we consume simple carbohydrates like sugar. This may not seem like much but changing the rate of gastric emptying can influence how well digested the food you consumed is when it enters your GI. It can also stimulate chemical signals that relay hunger messages to your brain. Often, meals rich in protein and fat and help slow down gastric emptying, making you feel fuller for longer. Unfortunately, if you’re consuming calorie-dense foods rich in fructose (or traditional sugar) and starch (like your favorite cookies and pies) all day long, you might still find yourself ready for dinner despite eating most of the day.

3. The sugar you eat can promote wide-spread inflammation

Fun fact: most of the sugar you eat isn’t actually glucose – it’s fructose. Fructose is a sister molecule of glucose, but it’s much sweeter and naturally found in fruits. Much of what you eat in apples or chocolate bars has a high level of fructose, and our body responds to it very differently. Scientists have even determined that when cells consume high levels of fructose, it can lead to low-grade chronic inflammation 2. In fact, this is one of the reasons scientists believe sugar may lead to weight gain. Unfortunately, this low-grade inflammation can heighten cortisol levels, the “stress” hormone responsible for giving you that anxious feeling when you’re overwhelmed. When cortisol levels rise, it increases your risk for insulin resistance – relating to one of the most serious symptoms of diabetes.

4. It helps increase the numbers of some unfriendly microbes

Normally, simple sugars get absorbed by the body quickly – after all, our body loves to run on glucose. That makes it fairly uncommon for sugars like glucose and fructose to make their way to our gut microbiome. Usually, this is an added benefit because these simple sugars can have a profoundly negative impact on beneficial microbes. But if you’re consuming a high-sugar diet, some of these sugars can make their way and disrupt the normal balance in the gut. One of the main ways they do this is by feeding pathogenic bacteria that can snuff out more beneficial microbial populations. What’s more, with the heightened stimulation of inflammation that occurs from a high-sugar diet, our body becomes too pre-occupied to help stabilize the gut ecosystem, allowing these pathogens to grow rapidly and colonize our gut.

Be thoughtful with your sweet choices.

These are just a few of the ways sugar can rapidly disrupt our body, but that doesn’t necessarily mean to run and hide. Practice thoughtful eating patterns. If you pick up a cookie, take your time in enjoying it. Often, by slowing down the rate you eat – your body can readily digest it and you can develop a healthier connection with your food.

With the holidays around the corner, you’re likely to face a difficult time turning down every sweet in sight. Instead, carefully choose which sweets get your attention and understand the impact they have on your body. The occasional slice of pie is fine – and if it’s grandma’s famous Thanksgiving pecan pie – maybe two… just make sure to eat some veggies too. Life’s about balance, right?


1. Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32:20-39.

2. DiNicolantonio JJ, Mehta V, Onkaramurthy N, O'Keefe JH. Fructose-induced inflammation and increased cortisol: A new mechanism for how sugar induces visceral adiposity. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2018;61:3-9.