Do you know how much sugar you're eating daily? Even if you think you know, the actual number is likely far higher than your initial estimate. This one ingredient is ubiquitous in modern life, and it's virtually impossible to escape its effects. Unfortunately, over time, all that sugar can do more harm than good, meaning that you need to be much more vigilant in your consumption.
While we're not here to demonize sugar, we believe that you should understand the potential side effects it brings so that you can make the right choices for your body and overall health. So, with that in mind, here's everything you need to know about sugar.
Table of Contents
A Primer on Sugar
First and foremost, sugar is a naturally occurring substance found in many types of food. While you may be picturing granulated sugar in a bag, this ingredient can be found in everything from fruits and vegetables to bread and processed meat. Simply put, sugar is everywhere, whether you realize it or not. In this section, we'll dive into the biology of sugar and its impact on the body.
How Does Sugar Affect the Body?
Sugar can affect various parts of your body, such as:
- Brain - Sugar causes your brain to release dopamine, which is the reward chemical. This release is a huge reason why it feels so good and satisfying when you chow down on sugary snacks and treats and why it's so hard to stop.
- Stomach - Have you ever been so stuffed after a meal, only to have just enough room for dessert? There's a reason for this phenomenon, and it has to do with feelings of satiety. Sugar can interfere with your stomach's natural cues to stop eating, meaning that it's super easy to overindulge. Even the thought of sugar can create this feeling too, which is part of the problem.
- Liver - Your liver exists to filter toxins out of your blood, as well as turn sugar into energy. However, only so much sugar can become energy, so the rest is turned into fat, which the liver sends into the bloodstream.
- Stress - Cortisol is called the "stress hormone," as high levels of it in your system can cause you to feel stressed out. In the short term, sugar can lower your cortisol levels, but a buildup of sugar can also create insulin resistance, which stresses your body out even more in the long term.
- Blood - The reason you feel energized after eating sugar is that your blood is full of glucose. However, the high fades relatively fast, leading to a sugar crash.
- Heart - A single sugar spike won't do much damage to your heart, but over time, it can lead to higher blood pressure and high cholesterol levels due to increased sodium intake and fat deposits in your blood vessels.
As you can see, sugar does quite a number on your body, and continuous consumption can only create cumulative effects that will worsen over time.
Why Do We Crave Sugar?
The primary reason why sugar has such a hold on us is that it triggers dopamine. This chemical makes us feel good, which causes us to want more of it. The effect is similar to doing hard drugs like heroin or cocaine, although those certainly have much worse side effects.
The problem with this dopamine release is that our brains naturally develop a tolerance to it, meaning that we need more of it to feel the same way. So, to trigger a similar effect, we have to eat more sugar, and the process repeatedly continues, getting worse each time.
Another reason you might crave sugar is because you're feeling tired or hungry. When exhausted, the body wants a quick pick-me-up, and sugar offers a natural energy boost. If you skip a meal, your body could crave more sugar for the same reason since sugar provides more immediate results than other nutrients.
How Much Sugar Do We Need?
Unfortunately, your body needs a lot less sugar than you might expect. Because it comes in so many foods, both natural and processed, you technically don't need to add any to your diet at all. However, since added sugars are almost impossible to avoid, the American Heart Association has the following recommendations:
- Men should consume no more than nine teaspoons (aka 36 grams) of added sugar per day.
- Women should consume no more than six teaspoons (25 grams) daily.
For reference, a single teaspoon is worth 4.2 grams of sugar, which is about 15 calories. Despite these recommendations, the average American adult consumes around 77 grams of added sugar every day, thanks to its abundance in various products like sodas and other sweet treats.
Is There a Difference in the Types of Sugar We Eat?
Sugar can have many unique names, such as barley malt, agave syrup (or any kind of syrup), dextrose, maltose, and, of course, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Depending on who you ask, people tend to think that naturally occurring sugars like pure cane sugar are healthier than those made in a factory, like HFCS. However, science doesn't show any difference in how our bodies respond to and process these ingredients.
Basically, all sugar is the same since all sugar contains fructose and glucose, although in different ratios. For example, table sugar has a 50/50 split, while agave syrup is 90 percent fructose and 10 percent glucose. By comparison, high-fructose corn syrup only has about 55 percent fructose.
Technically speaking, fructose doesn't lead to blood sugar spikes since it gets processed by the liver and doesn't absorb into the bloodstream directly like glucose. However, as we mentioned, too much sugar in the liver can lead to excess fat (aka triglycerides) in the bloodstream, so they both create problems when consumed in excess.
The Downsides of Too Much Sugar
Again, we're not trying to demonize sugar, but once you know the potential side effects, you'll likely want to pay closer attention to how much you're regularly eating. Here are the various cons of having too much sugar in your diet.
Sugar can cause weight gain in two different ways. First, sugar gets converted to fat, which gets stored in the body rather than flushed out through the digestive system. Second, because sugar is so addictive, it causes you to eat more than you would otherwise, meaning that you add too many calories to your diet. Obesity causes a lot of stress on the body, particularly internal organs because you have to work harder to do anything. Over time, that stress can lead to problems like heart disease and failure.
Acne is caused by an abundance of natural oil on your skin, which doesn't allow dead cells to flake off, so they build up and create a breeding ground for bacteria. Some people will notice immediate acne breakouts when eating too much sugar since it can spur androgen and oil production. So, a candy bar or soda before picture day could lead to some less-than-stellar photos.
Type 2 diabetes has surged in the United States over the last 30 years with no signs of slowing down. In 1991 (hard to believe that was 30 years ago), only 2.9 percent of the population had diabetes. In 2020, about 10 percent had it, or around 34.2 million people. Sugar is a primary culprit of this increase for two reasons.
First, excess sugar makes the body develop insulin resistance, meaning that it can't regulate blood sugar levels as efficiently. Second, sugar leads to obesity, which is the leading cause of diabetes on its own.
In addition to obesity putting extra stress on the heart, sugar can impact your most vital muscle in a couple of other ways. First, sugar can increase your blood pressure, which adds wear and tear to the heart. Second, it can lead to liver damage and extra cholesterol in the blood, which impedes blood flow.
According to a 15-year study, individuals who got between 17 and 21 percent of their daily calories from sugar had a 38 percent higher chance of dying from heart disease than those who limited their sugar intake to around eight percent of daily calories.
Warning Signs of Too Much Sugar in Your Diet
As we mentioned, a big reason why sugar is such a problem in the United States is that everyone is eating too much of it without realizing it. Here are a few warning signs that it's time to cut back on your sugar intake.
- Mood Swings - As your body releases dopamine, you feel great, but you feel worse once the chemical leaves your system. Over time, these mood shifts can be more pronounced and lead to stronger cravings.
- Sugar Belly - Many people have a stomach that extends past their waistline. There can be several causes of this, but usually, it's a result of empty calories from sugar. If the rest of your body looks fine but your stomach is relatively large, it's a sign that you should make some dietary changes.
- Brain Fog - Too much sugar can affect not only your mood but your cognitive abilities as well. Studies that looked at individuals with type 2 diabetes found that hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) led to cognitive decline. Brain fog can be both a short and long-term side effect if you don't address the problem immediately.
- Cavities - Nothing destroys tooth enamel quite like sugar. The problem is really the bacteria that live in your mouth, which love to feast on the substance. As they feed, they produce acid, which wears down the protective layer, leading to cavities and gum disease.
How to Mitigate Your Sugar Intake
Now that you know how sugar could be affecting your body, how can you maintain a healthier diet and lifestyle? Here are some top recommendations:
- Read the Label - As we mentioned, sugar has many names on the nutrition label, so it can be deceiving at first. Remember the grams to teaspoon ratio and try to stick within the AHA's recommended limits.
- Taper Your Sugar Cravings - Cutting sugar out completely will likely lead to backsliding. Instead, taper it off by switching to low-sugar alternatives. For example, if you love drinking soda, start consuming diet versions. Over time, your palate will adapt, and sugary beverages will seem too sweet.
- Minimize Temptation - If you keep tons of sugary snacks at home, it's too easy to dip into them regularly. Cut down on the sweets on your shopping list so that they aren't constantly staring you in the face when you feel hungry.
- Exercise - Managing health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol is much easier when you exercise regularly. Not only can activity help regulate your blood sugar, but it can also make your heart stronger and more efficient.
Juicing and Sugar
While juicing can be a healthy way to add vitamins and nutrients to your diet, fruits have tons of fructose. So, if you juice regularly, we recommend adding more vegetables to your mixtures to help cut down on the total amount of sugar in your beverage. Also, look up fruits that have less sugar and use them. For example, raspberries and strawberries have very little sugar, making them an ideal choice for juicing and smoothies.
Bottom Line: Sugar May Be Tasty, But Only In Moderation
While you need to be careful about your sugar intake, don't assume that all sugar is bad for your health. The primary issue is eating too much of it, meaning that a little won't hurt or cause lasting damage. By making smarter choices and paying closer attention to your diet, you can prevent the worst side effects and even reverse existing damage. It's never too late to get healthy.