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  • Dr. Chris Phillips

How Sugar Affects Rheumatoid Arthritis

Updated: Nov 12


If you have rheumatoid arthritis, is it helpful and worth it to change your diet? It’s a question I often get asked. Do the foods we eat have a connection to our autoimmune responses and symptoms? Yes, absolutely.


Foods most certainly impact our bodies, mind, and health, especially for those trying to manage their rheumatoid arthritis.


Let’s Talk About Sugar


Food is just one piece of the puzzle though. What about sweets? Should we think twice before consuming sugar and treats? Once again, the answer is yes. It is important to understand the toll sugar takes on our bodies and why we should seek out alternative sugar options or even consider going sugar-free.


It’s not that all sugar is bad. It’s not that a treat here or there will cause irreversible harm. It’s more about finding a balance and not overindulging. When we add too much sugar to our diets, that’s when we see a problem.


We also need to be aware of the kinds of sugar we are consuming. Eating sugar that naturally occurs in foods such as fruits and grains is different from the refined sugar you find in processed foods, drinks, snacks and desserts.


Sugar In All Its Forms


Sugar is sneaky. Let’s begin with identifying where sugar creeps into our diets. Sugar takes on many different titles.


#1 When you see words such as dextrose, fructose, and sucrose, that is sugar.

#2 Other times it is more obvious and simply called granulated sugar, brown sugar, or cane sugar.

#3 Sugar can also appear in a liquid form under names like corn syrup, molasses, and fruit juice concentrate.

#4 Learning to identify and spot how sugar is listed on a nutrition label is a great tool when trying to change your sugar intake.


The Impact Sugar Has on Our Bodies


We know sugar surrounds us. We also know it is hard to avoid. From breakfast to dinner choices and everything in between, grocery store aisles are overflowing with sugar-packed items. For many years, experts have conducted countless studies trying to determine the ultimate toll sugar takes on our bodies. From this research, it’s been shown time and time again that the over-consumption of sugar leads to:

  • inflammation

  • obesity

  • insulin resistance

  • heart disease

  • nonalcoholic fatty liver disease

  • kidney disease

  • high blood pressure


While not everyone will incur such substantial conditions from eating sugar, some might. A specialized diet is not a one-size-fits-all fix. One person could experience minor benefits, someone else could see life-changing results, and another could feel a restricted diet does nothing at all. It’s all about finding what works best for you and your body.


A Sugar-Free or Low-Sugar Way of Life


If you are looking to decrease the amount of sugar in your overall diet, I’d like to offer a few suggestions:


Determine Your Own Path


Many people discover that cutting out sugar cold turkey is extremely difficult. The drastic change is unrealistic and hard to maintain. Their sugar cravings are through the roof, which leads to some binge eating and regret. If removing all sugar from your diet is the right plan for you, all the power to you. Otherwise, take it slow. Have a goal to remove your evening dessert a few nights a week. Cut back on your soda intake. Don’t set yourself up for failure by saying you will have zero sugar forever, but rather set realistic goals you can accomplish.


Find Alternatives


Some of us have taste buds that are more naturally drawn to sugar. If that’s the case, look for sugar alternatives that can satisfy your cravings. There are numerous ways to substitute out plain white sugar in your diet. Consider using in your recipes:

  • honey

  • maple syrup

  • agave nectar

  • date paste

  • coconut sugar


If you go searching for sugar-free recipes online, you will come across many that call for artificial sweeteners such as Stevia, Truvia, xylitol, erythritol, aspartame, or monk fruit sweeteners. I recommend that you proceed with caution. My suggestion is that you choose all-natural substitutes.

Give Yourself Grace


Consuming less sugar is a difficult undertaking, especially since food is such a big part of our lives. Then you add to the mix all the complications that inherently come with an autoimmune disease, and life can be downright rough. It’s okay to have hard days, but let’s try to not let the tough times overpower what we are trying to achieve. Set attainable goals, then forgive yourself if you fall short.


Overall, many of my patients find sugar is not their friend and they are better off without it. They discover consuming sugar tends to exaggerate and agitate their symptoms, ultimately making them feel worse.


Cutting back your sugar intake is a very worthwhile endeavor. When the going gets tough, keep going. Don’t give up and know the team at Paducah Rheumatology is here to assist you through the journey.


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