While you may be familiar with avoiding excess sugar to prevent cavities and manage your weight, you may be surprised by its other detrimental effects.
Learn 6 ways sugar affects the body and get valuable tips to help curb your sweet tooth.
We’re Eating Too Much Sugar
From achy joints, mood and gut issues, yeast overgrowth and acne to increased risks of autoimmunity, obesity, diabetes and heart disease, sugar takes a toll on the body. Even with all its ill effects, Americans consume around 66 pounds of added sugar per person each year. (1) Sugar habits start early. A 2018 study found 99 percent of two year olds over-consume sugar. (2)
What Sugar Does to Your Body
Some of the results of sugar are immediate, while others are incremental. For example, your hormones, immunity and mood-influencing neurochemicals are influenced by sugar. Here’s 6 of the ways sugar affects the body.
1. Sugar Affects Hormones
Your blood sugar increases when you eat large quantities of sugar. The hormone insulin helps manage proper blood sugar levels. However, bit by bit, your body can become resistant to the signals of insulin. Enter insulin resistance—a predictor of type 2 diabetes. That’s not all. Fatty liver, heart disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome are also possible when insulin resistance is at play.
Another hormone, cortisol, is affected by sugar intake. High sugar consumption can impact your adrenal glands, keeping cortisol high and your midsection ever-growing. This increase in visceral fat can also play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes. (3)
2. Sugar Affects Immunity
Sugar is an inflammatory food. Inflammation drives autoimmunity and chronic disease. Excess sugar in your blood create free radicals. These damage your cells and can trigger an inflammatory immune response. What may start as an immune response can develop into full blown autoimmune disease(s).
3. Sugar Blocks Nutrients
If you’re opting for foods high in refined sugar, you’re not reaching for foods high in nutrients. Inflammatory, processed foods can even rob your body of nutrients from the healthy foods you’re eating.(4) Nutrients that can suffer from a high-sugar diet include: vitamin D, chromium, calcium, magnesium and vitamin C.
4. Sugar Affects Mood
Sugar impacts the chemical messengers in your brain. Refined sugar-laden sweets and drinks can contribute to symptoms of depression. (5) Sugar binging sends dopamine levels soaring. Eventually, your body requires greater and greater amounts of sugar for the same feel-good response. Eating sugar causes you to crave even more. Thus, a vicious cycle begins.
With high sugar consumption, dopamine levels are depleted and depressive symptoms may ensue. One study showed consumption of commercial baked goods and fast foods increased rates of depression by 38 percent. (6)
A study of 49,000 women over 8 years found that higher consumption of added sugar and refined grains increased the risk of depression. (7) On the other hand, higher intake of fiber-rich vegetables and fruit decreased the risk. Similarly, a study of men over 22 years found those that ate more than 67 grams of sugar a day were 23 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those who ate 40 grams or less. (8)
5. Sugar Ages Skin Prematurely
Skin health is a reflection of overall body health. Sugar not only can contribute to acne, but also can damage collagen, a protein that gives your skin structure. When sugar binds to proteins in your bloodstream, it forms molecules called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Indeed, your skin may look a bit older as AGEs lead to wrinkles, as well as increasing risk of insulin resistance, diabetes and heart disease. (9)
6. Sugar Increases Heart Disease Risk
One in four deaths in the US are contributed to heart disease. Sugar stresses heart tissue, and may lead to heart attacks, stroke and cardiovascular disease. (10) Reducing sugar can lower your heart disease risk and blood pressure.
Researchers in a 15-year study found that the more sugar participants consumed, the greater risk of heart disease. People who ate 25 percent of their daily calories from sugar were twice as likely to die from heart disease than those who ate 10 percent or less from sugar. (11)
The List Goes On
Note, this isn’t an exhaustive list. Sugar can play a role in liver health, candida overgrowth, gut health, cognitive decline, and cancer. It raises triglyceride levels and inflammatory weight. Excess sugar in the body turns into triglycerides and are stored in fat cells.
How Much Sugar Should We Eat
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugar each day for women and less than 38 grams (9 teaspoons) are recommended for men. (12)
With a 12-ounce can of regular soda containing around 9 teaspoons of sugar, you can see how easy it is to go over the recommended limits.
For children, the amounts depend on age, ranging from 12-25 grams (3-6 teaspoons). However, this is the upper limit. It’s important to remember that what your individual body may need to thrive could mean an even lower sugar intake is necessary.
Sugar in Foods & Beverages
About 74 percent of packaged food contain added sugar. (13) These added sugars–ones not inherently found in a whole food but rather added in processing and preparation–can be found in even seemingly healthy options. Fruit juices, salad dressings, yogurt, applesauce and peanut butter may have added sugars.
However, the biggest culprits of high amounts of inflammatory sugar in the American diet include: sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks. These sugary beverages account for more than a third of the added sugar we eat in the US. (14)
Of course, these classic sugar-filled foods are also a problem when they become more than the occasional treat: cookies, cakes, pies, pastries, ice cream, frozen yogurt, candy and sugary cereal.
Your body and brain can become accustomed to high intakes of these added sugars and may even experience withdrawal symptoms like fatigue, headaches and irritability when consumption is decreased. However, that’s not a reason to keep eating high amounts of sugar.
Tips to Curb Your Sweet Tooth
If you’re ready to take your health to the next level and avoid the detrimental effects of added sugar, consider these strategies:
1. Watch for hidden sugar.
Get to know the many words for sugar. Added sugars have different names such as: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, and turbinado sugar, just to name a few.
Become a nutritional label sleuth. First, check the ingredient list. The higher up sugars are on the list, the more added sugars there are in the product. Next, look for the added sugar line on food packages to make sure you’re within an appropriate range as to not exceed your daily total—less than 10 percent of caloric intake from sugar.
2. Restore gut balance.
Our gut bugs affect food cravings and can alter our taste, hunger signals and food preferences. (15) Bring your microbiome back in balance with fermented foods filled with beneficial bacteria. Sauerkraut, kimchi and coconut water kefir are options of naturally occurring probiotics. Eat prebiotic sources such as onions and leeks, too. Work with one of our practitioners to help correct intestinal overgrowth.
3. Reset your cravings.
Consider quitting added sugar for a period of time to reset your cravings and dopamine response. Give yourself permission to struggle by acknowledging the addictive properties of sugar. When intense cravings resurface, try an herbal tea, water with fresh fruit or even a walk around the block to reset your brain.
A health coach can provide additional support and help you craft an individualized game plan for when cravings strike and help you navigate sugar cues, such as the office vending machine.
4. Eat foods that support blood sugar.
Low glycemic, high fiber foods along with protein and healthy fats can help stabilize blood sugar and increase satiety.
Low blood sugar can make your irritable and “hangry.” By focusing on meals and snacks rich in protein and fat, you’ll avoid blood sugar crashes. Consider fresh veggies and guacamole, hard-boiled eggs, almond butter or a handful of mixed nuts and seeds. Amino acids found in lean protein like turkey may support mood symptoms from sugar withdrawal.
5. Manage your stress.
Include daily self-care rituals to reduce stress levels. When stress levels are high, cortisol rises, and you may find yourself wanting sweet, comforting foods. Turn instead to activities and practices that bring you joy and peace. Time in nature, a quick jog, yoga, a favorite tune or a pampering facial or massage might help bring the tranquility you need to avoid a sugar-binge.
6. Find a substitute.
Opt for fruit when you’re craving something sweet. As you decrease sugar consumption, you may be surprised at how much sweeter items like fresh berries and even almonds can taste. Swap naturally sweet fruit for a nightly dessert habit. Giving your body time to recalibrate to lower sugar levels may ward off a tendency for overindulgence in treats when you partake for celebrations and special occasions.
7. Eat nutrient-rich, whole foods.
Specific vitamins and minerals support healthy blood sugar levels. Stable blood sugar can mean less cravings. For example, the magnesium found in leafy greens, avocados and pumpkin seeds may improve insulin sensitivity. (16) Keeping your plate full of anti-inflammatory, unprocessed foods from nature instead of a package is key.
If you’re ready to lower inflammation, reset your sugar cravings and find renewed health and vitality, you can see if the SHAPE ReClaimed program may be right for you.
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- “Sugar Consumption Data for Small Children – Virginia Beach SPARK.” http://vbspark.org/blog/uncategorized/sugar-consumption-data-for-small-children/. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
- “Modifying Influence of Dietary Sugar in the Relationship … – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3946447/. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
- “Added sugars drive nutrient and energy deficit in obesity: a … – NCBI.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4975866/. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
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- “Fast-food and commercial baked goods consumption and the risk of ….” 11 Aug. 2011, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/fastfood-and-commercial-baked-goods-consumption-and-the-risk-of-depression/CF02E46F44CFC28D5F4D151FAD39EC77. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
- “High glycemic index diet as a risk factor for … – Oxford Journals.” https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/102/2/454/4564524. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
- “Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common … – Nature.” 27 Jul. 2017, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-05649-7. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
- “Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs): A Complete … – Healthline.” 22 Dec. 2016, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/advanced-glycation-end-products. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
- “Heart Disease Facts – CDC.” https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
- “JAMA Internal Medicine – JAMA Network.” 3 Feb. 2014, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1819573. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
- “Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health – AHA Journals.” 15 Sep. 2009, https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/circulationaha.109.192627. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
- “SugarScience.UCSF.edu | Hidden in Plain Sight.” https://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/hidden-in-plain-sight/. Accessed 24 May. 2019.
- “Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart ….” 30 Nov. 2016, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-too-much-added-sugar-increases-the-risk-of-dying-with-heart-disease-201402067021. Accessed 23 May. 2019.
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