Oh, sweet sugar.
It’s everywhere. And most of us know that too much of it probably isn’t great for us. Yet many of us overindulge anyway. While a sweet treat from time to time isn’t going to derail your health, consistently taking in excess sugar can have some very serious consequences.
Naturally occurring sugar isn’t the problem
First things first: Not all sugar is bad. Sugar occurs naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy. Consuming whole foods that contain natural sugar is generally completely fine. There’s also the bonus that plant foods also have high amounts of fiber, essential minerals, and antioxidants, and dairy foods contain protein and calcium.
Since your body digests these foods slowly, the sugar in them offers a steady supply of energy to your cells. A high intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains also has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
The problems occur when you consume too much added sugar – that is, sugar that food manufacturers add to products to increase flavor or extend shelf life.
Wired for the sweet stuff
Evolution has hard-wired our palates to prefer sweet-tasting foods to obtain quick energy and avoid bitter-tasting poisons. But we’ve taken that and ran with it. And ran, and ran, and ran.
Americans consume an average of more than 17 teaspoons of sugar (about 290 calories) a day from added sugars, often in sweetened beverages, far more than recommended.
Food companies know that we’re wired for it, which is why they add sugar to all kinds of products: Bread, condiments, dairy-based foods, nut butters, salad dressings, sauces, and more.
This doesn’t even consider the foods we eat that we know are full of added sugars: Sodas, juices, sweetened coffee drinks, cookies, candies, and so on.
How all of this sugar affects your body
Eating sugar gives your brain a huge surge of a feel-good chemical called dopamine. That explains why you’re more likely to crave a candy bar at 3 p.m. than an apple or a carrot.
Because whole foods like fruits and veggies don’t cause the brain to release as much dopamine, your brain starts to need more and more sugar to get that same feeling of pleasure. This causes those “gotta-have-it” feelings for your after-dinner ice cream that are so hard to tame.
The occasional candy or cookie can give you a quick burst of energy (or “sugar high”) by quickly raising your blood sugar levels. When your levels drop as your cells absorb the sugar, you may feel jittery and anxious (a.k.a. the dreaded “sugar crash”).
“Candy can rot your teeth.” This was the last thing you wanted to hear as a kid when you got home from trick or treating. But your parents were right. Bacteria that cause cavities love to eat sugar lingering in your mouth after you eat something sweet.
Eating excess candy and sweets has been shown to worsen joint pain because of the inflammation they cause in the body. Plus, studies show that eating or drinking sugar can raise your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Another side effect of inflammation is that it may make your skin age faster.
Excess sugar attaches to proteins in your bloodstream and creates harmful molecules called “AGEs,” or advanced glycation end products. These molecules do exactly what they sound like they do: age your skin. They have been shown to damage collagen and elastin in your skin — protein fibers that keep your skin firm and youthful. The result? Wrinkles.
An abundance of added sugar likely contains fructose or high fructose corn syrup. Fructose is processed in the liver and in large amounts can damage the liver. When fructose is broken down in the liver, it’s transformed into fat which can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and even scarring of the liver.
When you eat or drink too much sugar, the extra insulin in your bloodstream can affect arteries all over your body. Arteries become inflamed, thicker, and stiffer — all of which stresses your heart and damages it over time. This can lead to heart disease, like heart failure, heart attacks, and strokes.
Research also suggests that eating less sugar can help lower blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease. Plus, people who eat a lot of added sugar (where at least 25% of their calories come from added sugar) are twice as likely to die of heart disease as those whose diets include less than 10% of total calories from added sugar.
When you eat, your pancreas pumps out insulin. But if you’re eating too much sugar and your body stops responding properly to insulin, your pancreas starts pumping out even more insulin. Eventually, your overworked pancreas can break down, causing raised blood sugar levels and possibly even type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
This probably isn’t news to you, but excess sugar generally leads to excess weight. Research shows that people who drink sugar-sweetened beverages tend to weigh more — and be at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes — than those who don’t. Excess amounts of sugar can inflame fat cells causing them to release chemicals that increase weight.
Concerned about your sugar intake? Get a check-up
The best way to stay on top of full-body health is to keep up with your annual physical. StarMed Healthcare clinics offer physicals for the whole family to keep you and everyone you love healthy. If you’d like to schedule a physical or chat with a doctor about cutting back on sugar, visit a StarMed Healthcare location to speak to a provider today.