Ahhh, the sweet things in life. Reaching for that cookie or cupcake may not seem like such a big deal, but small indulgences can add up quickly. You may be asking yourself, “How much damage can it really cause? Should I be concerned about my sugar intake?”
Being aware of how much sugar you eat in a day, and cutting back where you can, may help prevent health problems down the road. Eating too much sugar is one of the major causes of our modern health epidemic. With sugary drinks and snacks more available than ever before, it is shifting people’s health into a not-so-sweet situation. Of course, sugar can’t be blamed for everything, but studies show that sugar can escalate health problems and is linked to more and more preventable diseases and disorders.
The flipside is that all kinds of low sugar and less processed sweet options are becoming available. So while it might be smart to give up some sweet comfort foods, there are plenty of replacements to be found. There are also many different kinds of sugar, and it can be confusing about what exactly should be avoided.
Is All Sugar Bad?
First of all, not all dietary sugars are bad. Carbohydrates, the category to which sugar belongs, are very necessary to fuel everyday functioning in the body. There are naturally occurring sugars in fruits and even vegetables that make up a healthy diet rich in nutrients. In fact, some sugary molecules found in healthy foods are known as prebiotics and may benefit the health of the digestive system and strengthen the immune system.
When talking about reducing sugar intake, what most people mean is avoiding refined sugar, which can be highly detrimental to your health. This is generally white or brown sugar made from sugar cane or sugar beets. With modern technology, there is also a list of other sugary substances to be aware of, such as high fructose corn syrup, inverted sugar, dextrose, maltose, and sucrose which are also refined.
So what about natural sweeteners like honey, agave, or maple syrup? Although they may be less refined and offer other nutritional qualities, they are still, in the end, sugar. It can be a great start to make the switch to natural forms of sugar, and when you are going to indulge, it certainly would be better to reach for raw or less refined sugar sources. Just be careful not to get too carried away as the body still responds to these kinds of sugar similarly to more refined sugar substances.
How Much Is Too Much?
What happens if you eat too much sugar? How do you know when to say when? This is a complicated question because every person will have a different tolerance for sugar, but there are some general guidelines that will benefit almost everyone. The CDC recommends that adults eat no more than 10% of their diet in added sugars, which for the average person would be about 12 teaspoons per day. That may seem like a lot, but with the number of processed foods and sugary drinks many people consume, it’s very easy to exceed that amount if you aren’t paying attention. Considering that a frappuccino can contain 20 teaspoons of sugar, it is easy to see how it can all add up quickly, like even before you’ve had breakfast!
1. Sugar Can Cause Weight Gain
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how many people don’t realize that sugar can increase rates of obesity dramatically. Excess sugars in the body are converted into fat and stored as adipose tissue. As most sugary foods also lack nutrients, these are what are known as empty calories. So people end up filling up on foods and drinks that are not providing any nutritional benefit while increasing their overall intake of calories.
Having a soft drink along with meals is very common these days and is one of the top contributors to obesity and excess sugar consumption. Sugary drinks such as soda pop, sweetened iced tea, energy drinks, sports drinks, coffee drinks, and even some juices (many have added sugar, check your ingredient labels!) can all have high amounts of sugar and can drastically increase rates of weight gain.
2. Sugar Can Increase Your Risk of Heart Disease
When people think of the effects of too much sugar in their diet, heart health may not come to mind, but it can be a major contributor to heart disease, even if you’re not struggling with weight management. Cardiovascular problems have more recently been linked to inflammation within the arteries, and sugar is a contributing factor that may increase inflammation throughout the body. Excess sugar has even been linked to high blood pressure, which also threatens the health of the cardiovascular system.
3. Sugar Can Increase Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
This one is pretty obvious. Eating a lot of sweets raises blood glucose and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. Even if you don’t have diabetes, high blood sugar can lead to all kinds of symptoms such as fatigue, mental confusion, and may be linked to hormone (cortisol) imbalances. Eating too much sugar, especially refined sugars, causes a spike in blood sugar, and the body tries to bring it down by releasing insulin. Over time, this mechanism doesn’t work as well, and you get what is called insulin resistance. The body stops responding to the insulin, and blood sugar stays high, leading people to feel terrible and increasing the possibility of other health problems over time.
4. Sugar May Increase Your Risk of Cancer
Although it has not been proven that sugar is a direct cause of cancer, there is a connection between high sugar consumption and certain kinds of cancer. Sugar may be more of an indirect agent that contributes to conditions within the body that increase cancer risk, such as obesity.
Some studies show that although sugar may not be the cause of cancer, it may contribute to the growth of certain kinds, such as colorectal cancer. Esophageal cancer has also been linked to sugar consumption, with some estimates being more than a 50% increased risk. There is evidence that excessive sugar intake can reduce the functioning of the immune system, which may play a role in the body’s ability to fight cancer. One promising perspective is the idea that it isn’t so much that sugar causes cancer, but more importantly, how your body responds to sugar intake and how that contributes to overall cancer risk.
5. Sugar Can Increase Your Risk of Depression
These days, we could all use a little mental health support. Of course, mental health relies on a lot of things, such as good sleep, social interactions, and so much more. Sugar has been linked to mental health concerns, and interestingly we also tend to crave more sugar when in a depressed state. Blood sugar fluctuations are known to contribute to mood fluctuations, which likely play a role in symptoms.
Another aspect of how sugar affects your mental health is its impact on the gut microbiome. Refined sugar feeds bacteria and fungi that may not be friendly to the digestive system and can have profound effects on neurotransmitters such as serotonin. More people are becoming aware of how important their gut microbes are and how they contribute to overall health. By feeding our healthy microbes the foods they love, such as prebiotics, and reducing foods that feed pathogenic bacteria or fungi (such as candida), our microbiome will become more balanced over time and lead to greater physical and mental health.
6. Sugar Can Accelerate the Skin Aging Process
We all want beautiful skin, and it becomes even more important as we get older to protect our skin from everyday damage and aging. Sugar may not seem like an important factor in how your skin ages, but it is a significant element that may contribute to how quickly your skin cells age. Now before you throw out that sugar scrub you love, know that it is the way cells respond to dietary sugar that makes its way into the bloodstream that has aging effects on the skin. This complex process, known as glycation, is inevitable, so it really can’t be stopped completely, but we can slow it down by reducing excess sugar intake and eating a diet high in antioxidants as much as possible.
7. Sugar Can Increase Cellular Aging
Sugar-induced glycation can happen all throughout the body and can speed up the aging process of our organs and cells. Sugar can also increase oxidative stress, disrupting cellular function, making them more prone to mitochondrial dysfunction, and even damaging cellular DNA. In short, sugar can speed up the processes of aging throughout the entire body and on a cellular level.
8. It Drains Your Energy
We all know that mid-day slump where our coffee starts to wear off and that donut or pastry you had for breakfast starts to leave you feeling empty and drained. Brain fog and fatigue are linked to the sugar crash that happens after eating sweets, and low energy is often a symptom of poor sugar metabolism. Simple carbohydrates and sugary foods cause a spike in blood glucose, better known as a “sugar high,” followed by a sharp decline in energy as insulin is released to balance it out. This crash is often accompanied by the inability to focus or think clearly, making even simple tasks feel more difficult than they would otherwise.
9. Sugar Can Lead To Fatty Liver
Fatty liver is pretty much just what it sounds like — excess fat stored in the liver. The fat that is stored there mostly starts as excess blood sugar, which is transformed into fat cells and reserved for later use. Why is this a problem? The liver is involved in a wide range of important functions in the body. Everything from digestion to cleansing the blood relies on this organ, and fatty liver can lead to inflammation of the organ and eventually damage to the organ tissues.
Do you think fatty liver is only found in older folks and alcoholics? Guess again. With the high amounts of sugar intake in our modern society, fatty liver is found even in young people.
10. Additional Health Risks
Although this list may already seem overwhelming, there’s more. Sugar is being linked to more and more health issues, and sadly sugar consumption among children and adults only continues to rise. This is, of course, leading to increases in dental cavities and gum disease, which can cause inflammation in other parts of the body. As the body grapples with eliminating excess sugar, it can easily be overwhelmed, which can contribute to kidney damage and painful issues like gout and arthritis. Sugar is also being targeted as a culprit in cognitive decline and may play a role in dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s.
How To Reduce the Amount of Sugar You Eat
Luckily, it’s not all doom and gloom! We all have the ability to take a closer look at the foods we eat and find ways to reduce or eliminate refined sugar from our diet. Here are a few tips to get started.
♦ Start removing the highest sugar items first. Soda, cake, cookies, and other obvious high sugar foods you can certainly live without. Take a look at your overall sugar consumption and try to find the foods that would do the most good by going without.
♦ Find healthier sweet alternatives. Homemade and less processed foods will generally have less sugar. Switch out that soda with kombucha or a lightly sweetened iced tea. Learn to bake your favorite goodies, and reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe. Replace candy with dried fruit. Make your own lattes, smoothies, and try fresh pressed veggie juices with small amounts of fruit as a sweetener.
♦ Beware of artificial sweeteners. Just because it’s low in sugar doesn’t mean it’s good for you!
♦ Start reading ingredient labels. Even foods that might seem like a healthy option may have sneaky amounts of sugar in them (think granola bars, yogurt, and fruit juice.). Pay special attention to the amount listed in the added sugars section, as these are usually refined sugar that you may want to avoid. If sugar or another sweetener is one of the first ingredients listed, assume there may be a considerable amount in that food item.
♦ Try herbal bitters! Bitters are a type of classic herbal formula used to help curb sugar cravings and may also help improve digestive function. Often used in cocktails, these formulas have been around for centuries for various purposes. There are many to choose from, and you can even find these formulas in spray bottles for easy, on-the-go use. Great news? Coffee (unsweetened) is a variety of bitter!
♦ Balance with complex carbohydrates and protein. If you are going to have something sweet, balance it out! Choosing complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains and starchy vegetables) that break down slower will help keep your sugar levels from spiking and quickly dropping the way they will with simple sugars that release into the bloodstream rapidly. Even better, combine complex carbs with something high in protein, so it gives the body several types of fuel to run on, and you won’t be as prone to find yourself running on empty!
♦ Create a good foundation and indulge occasionally. Of course, life just wouldn’t be as sweet if we never treat ourselves. Find moderation and a good balance in your sugar consumption, so you don’t feel the guilt of an occasional indulgence.
Waking up to Wellness
The major takeaway is that not all sugar is bad, and we don’t have to be perfect to improve our health by reducing the amount of sugar in our lives. It is the excessive amounts of refined sugar that are so problematic. As our food has become sweeter and sweeter over time, many people probably do not even realize the amounts of sugar they consume. Taking steps toward greater health now can help improve quality of life later on and hopefully help avoid health issues that are becoming commonplace in people who have high sugar diets.