Is Sugar Bad for You? 8 Ways Too Much Harms Your Body

Sugar is not always bad for you. Your body needs glucose, a form of sugar, to survive. You don’t need to eat glucose or other sugars because your body makes it from your food. Increased cravings, tooth decay, and weight gain may happen to your body when you eat too much added sugar.

There are two types of sugar: natural and added. Natural sugars, as the name implies, occur naturally in foods. The sugar in fruit is called fructose, and the sugar in milk is called lactose. Added sugars are combined with other ingredients in prepared foods and come from brown sugar, cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and more.

Sugar adds sweetness to a wide variety of foods and drinks. Most men take in about 19 teaspoons (tsp) of added sugar daily, and women eat or drink about 15 tsp. Read on to learn how bad sugar is for the body and what happens when you eat it.

Sugar is a carbohydrate, which is an essential macronutrient. Every cell in your body uses glucose, a type of sugar, for energy. Glucose is what your body makes when it breaks down proteins, fats, and other carbohydrates. Your body uses the glucose it makes from food to fuel your brain and your organs.

Other sugars include:

  • Fructose
  • Galactose
  • Lactose
  • Maltose

Your body breaks sugar down using digestive enzymes (amylase) in your mouth. Sugar then travels through your digestive tract, where it’s absorbed into your bloodstream as glucose. This raises your blood sugar level, causing your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin is a hormone that tells your cells to absorb glucose.

Sugar is not always bad for you, but too much added sugar can be harmful. Sugars tend to be absorbed into your bloodstream quickly, causing spikes in your insulin levels, which can be problematic over time. Your body stores the extra glucose in your liver and muscle tissues until you need it. Sugar is also converted to fatty tissue.

Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar

Whether sugar is bad for you depends on where you get it from. Fruit, dairy products, and vegetables are sources of natural sugar. These foods also have antioxidants, fiber, minerals, and vitamins essential for overall health.

Added sugar, in contrast, is considered “empty calories.” Foods high in added sugar do not have the same nutritional value as those with natural sugar. Most Americans’ primary sources of added sugars are sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods, desserts, and sweets.

There are different names for added sugar, which comes from other sugar-containing ingredients. Types of added sugars include:

  • Cane juice
  • Concentrated fruit or vegetable juice
  • Dextrose, fructose, glucose, or sucrose
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Malt syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Sugar or sugar cane

Eating too much added sugar regularly has been shown to cause unpleasant side effects, such as noticeable changes in your thinking, energy, and stress levels. Here are a few things that happen to your body when you eat sugar to consider.

1. Can Increase Sugar Cravings

Eating large amounts of sugar speeds up the brain’s reward and appetite center. This can interfere with feelings of fullness and satisfaction over time.

You may become less content with the same amount of sugar. This, in turn, could lead to an almost addictive pattern of sugar cravings and overeating, leading to becoming overweight or developing obesity.

2. Causes Tooth Decay

The mouth has a balance of helpful and harmful bacteria. Sugar can stick to the harmful bacteria in the mouth and form plaque. This bacteria creates acids that wear down the protective enamel that covers teeth, resulting in tooth decay. A cavity, or a hole in a tooth, can develop as tooth decay worsens.

3. Could Lead to a Blood Sugar Crash

Refined carbohydrates in foods and drinks like sodas, cookies, cakes, or pies can quickly cause a rise in glucose in the bloodstream. You might feel extra energized for a while. This short-term fix can make you more sluggish later when you eventually crash.

Instead, opt for protein-rich snacks between meals, such as Greek yogurt with fresh berries or fresh vegetables and hummus. Protein helps stabilize blood sugar and keeps you going longer.

4. Impacts Brain Function

Too much added sugar changes how your brain functions. Added sugar has been linked to cognitive decline and degenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

A study published in 2019 of more than 1,200 Malaysian adults older than 60 found excessive sugar consumption was linked to poorer cognitive function. More research is needed to understand why that’s the case.

Research has shown that eating diets high in saturated fat and sugar leads to a range of memory and cognitive impairments regardless of age. This may be due to the inflammatory effects of fat and sugar on the central nervous system and hippocampus. This brain region controls certain types of memory and our response to hunger cues.

5. Increases the Risk of Disease

Too much added sugar can accelerate the usual oxidation process in the cells. Sugar creates oxidative stress in the body that can damage proteins, tissues, and organs.

This can increase the risk of certain health conditions, including:

  • Cognitive decline
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)
  • Some cancers

6. May Cause Weight Gain

Added sugar can provide your body with energy in the form of calories, but it offers little nutritional value. Sugary products, especially beverages, don’t leave you feeling full. Blood sugar spikes and crashes from them can make you hungrier later. Increased hunger can lead you to eat more than you need, causing a pattern of overeating that can lead to weight gain.

7. Might Age Skin Faster

Consuming a lot of added sugar can hinder collagen repair. Collagen is a protein that keeps skin looking plump. A lack of collagen leads to thinner skin and skin aging. A steady diet of sugary treats can also result in reduced elasticity, poor wound healing, and premature wrinkles because of the way the body breaks down sugar.

One strategy to protect your skin is to indulge your sweet tooth with fruit instead. Fruits also contain antioxidants, which protect the body from inflammation that leads to aging and some diseases. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends two cups of fruit daily.

8. Raises Stress Levels

Research has shown that sweets can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the short term. Added sugar may cause problems in the long term. A small study published in 2015 found that some people under stress may be more vulnerable to craving sweets because they release soothing brain chemicals.

The effect is temporary, and the stressed feeling can return, only a little worse than before, leading to more sugar consumption. Research has found a link between sugar consumption and self-medication for states like stress, anxiety, and depression. This can lead to self-medication with more sweets in some people.

The DGA calls for no added sugars for children younger than 2 and less than 50 grams (g), or 10% of daily calories, for adults eating 2,000 calories per day.

Here are some examples of how much added sugar some foods contain to put 50 g into perspective:

  • A 16-ounce (oz) glass of apple juice contains 48 g
  • A cup of Bush’s sweet heat-baked beans has 26 g
  • Fage honey split cup yogurt has 25 g
  • One piece of chocolate cake that you’d find in a grocery store bakery contains about 55 g

The guidelines for added sugar note the maximum amount of sugar you should eat or drink per day; they do not recommend that you eat that much. There aren’t any guidelines for how much natural sugar you should get.

It’s OK to enjoy sweet treats in moderation now and then. Cutting out added sugar completely can create an unhealthy relationship with food. Try to decrease your sugar intake instead.

Here are some ways to reduce the amount of added sugar you consume:

  • Drink water or milk instead of sugary beverages like soda. Try adding lemon slices or mint leaves to water for flavor.
  • Look at the ingredients list and nutrition facts label, and opt for products that have less added sugar
  • Make your own food, like granola, pasta sauce, ketchup, and barbeque sauce, at home
  • Use sources of natural sugar, such as apples, bananas, or sweet potatoes, to sweeten food

A few things can happen in your body when you eat sugar. Consuming it in moderation will likely have little impact. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a sweet treat in moderation now and then.

Consuming too much added sugar over a long period can have some downsides. Risks include blood sugar crashes, faster aging, and an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, or cognitive decline. Talk to a healthcare provider if you need help creating a balanced diet that works for you.

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