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What Happens to Your Body When You Eat Too Much Sugar
Sugar — from your morning cup of Joe to your sweet evening dessert — is the ingredient that seems to be everywhere.
And Americans are eating and drinking way too much of it. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American adults and children over 2 years of age are averaging about 17 teaspoons per day of added sugars.1
Consuming too much sugar can lead to a variety of health conditions including obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting the intake of added sugars to less than 10% of total daily calories. So if you're following a 2000-calorie diet, that equals 200 calories or 12 teaspoons of added sugars per day.2
To put that into context, one can of regular soda contains a whopping 10 tablespoons of sugar — close to your entire daily allotment.
Types of Sugar: Naturally Occurring vs. Added
The four most common forms of sugar include:
- Fructose (fruit sugar)
- Sucrose (table sugar)
- And lactose (dairy sugar)
Some sugars are naturally occurring in foods, while others are added to foods to make them taste sweeter.
Apples, for example, contain natural sugars — hence the natural sweetness. Cookies, on the other hand, have a lot of added sugar included in the recipe to make them taste as delicious as they do.
Naturally Occurring Sugar
Sugars that are naturally part of food are—you guessed it—naturally occurring. For example, the sugar in fruits is natural. All fresh, frozen, dried, and canned as well as 100% fruit juices contain natural sugar. As well as those found in dairy products like milk and yogurt, and some starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn.
Naturally occurring sugars are typically not as big of a health concern as added sugars.
Added sugars are those added to a food or beverage and are not inherently found in the food. When reading a food label keep an eye open for the basic types of sugar ending in –“ose” as well as syrups—corn, malt, and high-fructose. Many ingredient labels will have multiple types of sugar added. While you would suspect to find added sugars in products like cookies, cake, and ice cream they also sneak into many other less obvious products like bread, crackers, pasta sauce, and salad dressing.
When reading a food label, there will be the total amount of sugar per serving in grams, as well as added sugars—this helps identify those sugars not naturally found in the food. A good example of how this can be confusing is dairy products. There will be naturally occurring sugar in the form of lactose. But if it's a flavored dairy product, you'll also find added sugars.
How Sugar Affects Your Body
Knowing the different sources of sugar is important to avoid eating this ingredient in excess. While it makes food taste good and acts as a preservative extending the shelf life of processed foods, sugars are empty calories. AKA they have zero nutritional value, and eating too much for too long can negatively impact health.
In this article, we are going to review how sugar in excess impacts different parts of the body.
Sugar & Your Brain
If you feel energized after eating a sugary snack and then crash afterward—it's not your imagination. When we eat sugar, the brain gets a rush of the feel-good hormone called dopamine. So you feel a jolt of energy, and then when the dopamine wears off, you feel the crash.
Eating sugar in excess, over time, you will need more and more sugar to have the same energy-boosting effects. And, as a result, your sugar cravings may increase, feel more intense, and possibly addictive.3
Sugar & Your Mood
Because of the impact of dopamine on the brain, the next question is that over time, can too much sugar impact mood and lead to symptoms of depression? Eating too much sugar can make some people feel foggy and have low energy. And data suggests that too much sugar intake could lead to anxiety, although we need more human studies to confirm this.4
Sugar & Your Teeth
Sugar-laden beverages and snack foods will also negatively impact oral health. It is well known and well documented that sugar leads to tooth decay. The bacteria in the mouth that lead to cavities love sugar. So your mom and your dentist were right about limiting candy to protect your smile.
Sugar & Your Joints
If you have pain caused by inflammation in your joints—you may want to look at your sugar intake. Because sugar is inflammatory, it may be worsening existing joint pain. Log your food for a week and review it with a registered dietitian to understand if limiting sugar intake may help ease your joint pain.
Sugar & Your Skin
The link between acne and sugar is indirect. But if you have existing acne, the inflammatory properties of sugar could worsen your acne. Also, excess sugar can lead to sagging skin because of its effect on collagen production. So skipping dessert will help your waistline and help ward off sagging skin.
Sugar & Your Liver
While most people associate drinking too much alcohol with liver problems, sugar can be equally as harmful to the liver. Excess calories and sugar can lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.5
The inflammatory properties of sugar also negatively impact the liver, as we’ve reviewed with several other systems and organs throughout the body.
Sugar & Your Heart
Excess sugar and the insulin running through the bloodstream carry damaging inflammatory particles all over your body through arteries. Over time, artery walls can become inflamed and stiffen and get thicker. This makes it more challenging for your heart and cardiovascular system to pump blood through your body. According to the American Heart Association, eating less sugar can help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.6
Sugar & Your Pancreas
When you eat sugar the body releases insulin so the cells can use the sugar as energy. The more sugar you eat, the more insulin you need. This can negatively impact the pancreas and decrease its ability to continue to produce sufficient insulin. As the pancreas wears out, insulin sensitivity develops which could lead to type 2 diabetes.
Sugar & Your Kidneys
Your kidneys will start to become affected by excess sugar consumption if you’ve developed type 2 diabetes. The kidneys clean the blood and if blood sugar levels get too high, sugar will start to appear in higher concentrations in the urine. Being mindful of sugar intake is important to ward off insulin sensitivity, type 2 diabetes, and its potential impact on the kidneys.
Sugar & Your Body Weight
Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain. This is likely no surprise. Sugar-sweetened beverages are the main source of sugar for most Americans and the clinical data shows a link between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain.7
Sugar & Your Sexual Health
Yes, excess sugar intake can impact sexual health. Sugar can lead to feelings of fatigue and fogginess and we reviewed its potential link to depression. The circulation issues from excess sugar intake over time and the impact on the arteries can impact blood flow to the sex organs impacting the ability and desire for intimacy. Just another reason to drop the cupcake and skip dessert!
Sugar & Your Body: A Review
An occasional treat or sugar-sweetened beverage isn't going to send your health over the edge. But sugar in excess will, over time, impact your physical and mental health, and make it harder for certain organs and systems in your body to do their job. Be mindful of added sugars, and how much you're consuming, by reading food labels.
And try limiting sugary snacks like cookies, cake, and candy and ditching your sugar-laden drinks for OLIPOP instead! This will help ensure that you enjoy a sometimes sweet treat without all the negative health effects.
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Added Sugars. Accessed July 5, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/added-sugars.html
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Accessed July 5, 2021. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov.
- DiNicolantonio, James J et al. “Sugar addiction: is it real? A narrative review.” British journal of sports medicine vol. 52,14 (2018): 910-913. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2017-097971
- Avena, Nicole M et al. “After daily bingeing on a sucrose solution, food deprivation induces anxiety and accumbens dopamine/acetylcholine imbalance.” Physiology & behavior vol. 94,3 (2008): 309-15. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2008.01.008
- Fatahi, Somaye et al. “The association between food insulin index and odds of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in adults: a case-control study.” Gastroenterology and hepatology from bed to bench vol. 14,3 (2021): 221-228
- American Heart Association. Added Sugars. Accessed July 5, 2021. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/added-sugars.
- Malik, Vasanti S et al. “Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: a systematic review.” The American journal of clinical nutrition vol. 84,2(2006) 274-88. doi:10.1093/ajcn/84.1.274
- The four most common forms of sugar include glucose, fructose (fruit sugar), sucrose (table sugar), and lactose (dairy sugar).
- The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting the intake of added sugars to less than 10% of total daily calories.
- Consuming too much sugar can lead to a variety of health conditions including obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay. It can also impact your mood, sexual health, joints, and skin.
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