What You May Not Know About the Connection Between Sugar and Immunity

Here’s why sugar matters during the coronavirus crisis, and how to make smart food choices that can protect your health.

Shutterstock / Dragana Gordic
Shutterstock / Dragana Gordic

As coronavirus spreads throughout the globe, so does an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. And during these uncertain times, it’s tempting to make unhealthy eating choices. Nearly 75% of people say they are concerned about their ability to maintain healthy habits right now, according to a Thrive Global survey of 5,000 respondents around coronavirus pain points. Whether we’re stress-eating to cope or stocking up on non-perishables, it’s especially easy to go overboard on sugar. 

What many may not realize, though, is that there’s a connection between sugar and immunity, and avoiding the sweet stuff can help keep our immune response stronger. For instance, avoiding sugar can help us reduce chronic inflammation, according to a study from the C.D.C. and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Inflammation contributes to the conditions that put us at greater risk for viral infections. And limiting sugar can help us fight off obesity, which has been linked to more severe viral infections.

Being mindful of what ends up on our plate has benefits beyond keeping us as healthy as possible; it can also give us a sense of agency. After all, so much of what’s happening right now is out of our hands. It’s deeply empowering to focus on the aspects of our immunity and resilience that are within our control — such as prioritizing sleep, managing stress, and, yes, making better food choices.

If you’d like to cut back on sugar but aren’t sure where to start, the good news is that you can start small — smaller than you think — with science-backed Microsteps. Here are three to help you get started:

Swap one sugary beverage a day with water. 

Sugar is proven to increase inflammation in the body, which limits your immune response. If you’re able, you might want to add a slice of lemon to make it more flavorful.

Today, cut out one item from your daily diet that has sugar.

70 percent of your immune system lives in your gut, so what you eat directly affects your ability to fight illness. Sugar weakens the immune system by starving beneficial bacteria, making it easier for you to get sick. Retiring even one sugary food makes a difference. 

Read the label on a food item in your home you think is healthy. 

Many foods — including cereals, juices, jams, and even bread — are loaded with sugar, even though they’re labeled as “healthy.” A glance at the label will quickly boost your awareness so you can buy another brand or swap it for something truly healthy.

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