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We all deserve a treat every now and then, but chances are you have more added sugar in your diet than you realize. Not only does sugar appear in obvious eats like cakes, cookies, and candy, but sugar hides in many seemingly non-sweet items such as yogurt, pasta sauce, and cereal. Not to mention the sugar-laden “sports” drinks, sodas, juice, and coffee beverages many of us consume on a daily basis.
So, what’s so bad about added sugar? You probably know it can contribute to weight gain, but excess sugar intake is also linked to a host of other health problems—from heart disease to depression. “The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends added sugars do not exceed 10 percent of your caloric intake,” says registered dietitian Jonathan Valdez, RDN, owner of Genki Nutrition and a media rep for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “So based on a 2,000-calorie diet, this would be 200 calories.” The American Heart Association (AHA) is even stricter, recommending no more than 150 calories a day for men and 100 for women from from added sugar. Estimates vary on how much added sugar Americans actually consume, but a recent government report says the average is 270 calories per day.
Estimates vary, but the average American consumes 270 calories worth of added sugar a day.
To be clear, we’re not talking about naturally occurring sugar, such as in whole fruit—that’s paired with fiber and more slowly digested. Added sugar, on the other hand, is processed quickly by the body. Making it more confusing, added sugar likes to “hide” on nutrition labels (an FDA change would have had “added sugars” listed separately, but these changes have been postponed). For now, look for ingredients such as corn syrup, brown sugar, fruit juice concentrates, honey, molasses, agave, and anything ending in “ose”—like dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, or sucrose.
Once you can identify sugar and cut foods that contain it from your diet, here are some of the positive (and even lifesaving) ways your body may benefit:
Research has clearly shown that sugar leads to cardiovascular risks, including high blood pressure and cholesterol. “Excess added sugar can increase blood lipids such as triglyceride levels,” says registered dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies. “A high added sugar intake can also lower levels of protective HDL cholesterol.” One major study showed that participants who got 25 percent or more of their daily calories from added sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease than those who consumed fewer than 10 percent of calories from added sugar—regardless of other risk factors. The strength of the link between cardiovascular disease and added sugar is the reason the AHA created their own guidelines, Palinski-Wade says.
It’s probably not a surprise that cutting out added sugar can lead to weight loss—but just how much weight are we talking about? “Cutting back on added sugars can reduce the amount of total caloric intake, therefore helping you maintain weight or lose weight,” Valdez says. “How much weight can you expect to lose if you cut sugar really depends how much you consume.”
If you cut 160 calories of added sugar a day (for reference, a can of soda is about 150 calories) without replacing it with anything else, that’s 58,400 calories a year. Using the widely accepted formula that burning 3,500 calories equals losing one pound, that would be almost 17 pounds a year! (However, shedding weight might not be that simple because of other factors at play, so the National Institutes of Health recommends using their online Body Planner to better estimate your specific weight loss.)
Although the role of dietary sugar in diabetes isn’t totally clear, studies have found that sugar intake is linked with an increased risk of diabetes. The American Diabetes Association also recognizes that sugary drinks are associated with diabetes development. Diabetes occurs when the pancreas can’t make enough insulin to process the body’s blood sugar (glucose), which is used for energy, instead causing a buildup of sugar in the blood. “Excess added sugar can increase insulin resistance,” Palinski-Wade says. “As inflammation markers and insulin resistance rise, so does the risk of type 2 diabetes.” Weight is also a factor in diabetes, and too much added sugar can cause you to pack on pounds. Portion size matters as well, Valdez says; eating a lot of sugar at once can stress your system. “Huge amounts of sugar can cause insulin spikes, which is an inflammatory response,” he says.
This inflammatory response can also have effects on the brain, which helps explain why people who are diabetic or prediabetic are at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease, Valdez says. Glucose is important to fuel the brain—but if it can’t get to the brain because of insulin resistance, the brain can’t function as well. Alzheimer’s has even been referred to as “type 3 diabetes” because of this. In addition, researchers have found that a diet high in added sugar gets in the way of learning and memory.
Another way added sugar affects the brain is through mood regulation—anyone who’s ever had sugar cravings and crashes can attest to this. Some research has even linked added sugar with the development and worsening of depression, possibly because of the effects of inflammation on the brain and the disruption of brain chemicals. “When it comes to depression, symptoms worsen when consuming sugar,” says psychologist Deboarah Serani, PsyD, author of Living with Depression. “It's vital to eat healthy.” She recommends instead eating a diet packed with lean protein, complex carbs, and foods with omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon.
Too much added sugar can damage your skin through a process called glycation, in which sugar molecules bond to proteins, fats, and amino acids in the body. “When proteins become glycated, they become stiff and much less functional, so imagine what that does to the proteins in your skin,” says dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD, author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin. Collagen and elastin, the fibers that keep skin firm and elastic, are greatly impacted by this process, she says. “Sugars are rapid stimulators of glycation, as they easily attach themselves to proteins in the body—you really must reduce your sugar intake to maintain healthy skin.”
In addition, high glycemic index foods, which often have lots of added sugars, can worsen acne because blood sugar spikes increase hormones that cause oil production, Dr. Bowe says. “Numerous studies show that when people prone to acne alter their diets to reduce their sugar intake and lean toward low-GI foods, they experience reduced numbers of acne lesions, reduced severity of acne breakouts, and reduced sebum [oil] production,” she says.
What your mother told you is true: Sugar rots your teeth, because the bacteria in your mouth thrive on it, which increases your risk of cavities and gum disease. “All studies have shown a correlation between increased markers of sugar and diabetes, and an increase in gum disease,” says periodontist Sanda Moldovan, DDS, of Beverly Hills Dental Health. “The mouth is really a reflection of our inflammation status, and the more sugar we consume, the more chronic inflammation we tend to display, which includes periodontal disease and cavities. The higher the blood sugar level, the more gingival inflammation we see.” Cutting down on the added sugars can help improve your dental health.
Studies have shown that a high-sugar diet is associated with more nighttime arousals, which don’t make for good sleep. “Some arousals pulled people out of deep sleep and into lighter, less restful sleep, and some led to actual awakening,” says Richard Shane, PhD, behavioral sleep therapist and creator of the Sleep Easily Method. “All arousals led to feeling less refreshed in the morning.” Although a “sugar crash” can make you feel tired, keeping blood sugar steady is actually key for more restful sleep. “When you eat a lot of sugar right before bed, your blood sugar level spikes and then falls rapidly as your body releases hormones to try to lower your blood sugar level,” Dr. Shane says. “The swings in hormones and blood sugar levels can impair sleep.”
Although satisfying your sweet tooth makes you feel good in the short term, that handful of Skittles from the office candy jar can often have the opposite effect. “Since simple sugars are digested rapidly and spike blood glucose levels and insulin, they can actually cause you to experience more hunger and cravings—these are empty calories that do not provide nutrients or a feeling of satiety,” Palinski-Wade says. Cutting added sugar and replacing it with less processed, higher-fiber food alternatives can allow you to feel more satisfied with fewer calories. “It’s not about giving up added sugar, it’s about swapping out with better options,” Valdez says.