11 Scary Things Sugar Does to Your Body
Do you have a sweet tooth or live for your daily soda? You may change your habits after you hear what it’s doing to your body.
Sugar may shorten lifespan
You probably know that a candy bar or can of soda aren’t exactly healthy, but you might not be aware of how exactly their sugar content is affecting your body. And while a treat every once in a while is perfectly OK, daily consumption has been shown to have pretty significant negative health outcomes. A study at the University of California San Francisco found that drinking a 20-ounce soda on a daily basis was equivalent to 4.6 years of cell aging, the same as smoking cigarettes—and this cell aging has previously been linked with a shorter human lifespan. The things that happen to your body when you stop eating sugar, on the other hand, are beneficial to your health.
Sugar spikes your insulin
One of the immediate effects of too much sugar is the release of more insulin, which regulates blood sugar. Soda is the worst culprit, says Vasanti Malik, ScD, a research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Sugars in beverages are absorbed very quickly, which results in rapid increases in blood glucose and insulin,” she says. “Over time this can lead to insulin resistance [in which the body needs more and more insulin to be effective], and place an individual on a pathway to adverse metabolic health.” Naturally occurring sugars, as in fruit, don’t have the same negative effects because they’re paired with fiber, which helps slow absorption.
Sugar puts you at risk for diabetes
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If you have any of the clear signs you have high blood sugar, you could be on the road to diabetes already. “Insulin resistance requires the pancreas to produce more insulin, since tissues are not as sensitive to it,” Ed Saltzman, MD, a scientist in the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University says. “Over time, the pancreas can become fatigued by this excess production and stop being able to secrete adequate insulin. When this occurs, type 2 diabetes may develop.”
Sugar makes you gain weight
Your body needs some sugar for energy, but the rest is stored as fat. Not shockingly, sugar’s relationship to weight gain affects your health. “In a number of studies, added sugars have been associated with weight gain and obesity, which in turn leads to increased risk of type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Saltzman says. Why this happens is complicated, but may have to do with low-grade inflammation caused by obesity as well as insulin resistance, he says. In addition, “consumption of [added sugar] has also been linked to increased waist circumference [a.k.a. belly fat], an independent risk factor for heart disease,” Dr. Malik says. Plus, sugary drinks actually prime the body to store more fat.
Sugar ups your blood pressure and heart disease risk
Here’s how to have your most heart-healthy day: Cut the sugar. Studies have shown that it’s linked to high cholesterol and death from heart disease. “High intake of sugars has been associated with an increase in a type of blood lipid called very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) that has been associated with risk for cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Saltzman says. Sugar may also decrease HDL, the “good” cholesterol that protects against heart problems, he says. Plus, get ready for high blood pressure. “Insulin resistance may cause hypertension by its effects on the kidney, on the structure and function of arteries, and possibly on centers in the brain that contribute to blood pressure control,” he says.
Sugar messes with your brain’s signals
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Although it’s not conclusively proven to be addictive, sugar does seem to have that effect on the brain. “Energy-dense, sweet-tasting foods may lead to reinforcement of consuming those foods in a part of the brain called the limbic system,” Dr. Saltzman says. “In essence, we are training our brains to like and to want these sweet-tasting foods, and this may lead to increased consumption.” Dr. Malik also says sugar may stimulate the pleasure centers of your brain, similar to the way drugs do. Try these surprising ways to kick your sugar addiction.
Sugar can leave you still hungry
Because you’re not getting any real nutrients when you eat sugar, you may still feel hungry. One Australian study found that higher refined sugar intake was associated with an inability to realize you’re full. Plus, with sweet drinks, “calories from sugar in liquid form are not thought to be satiating, and people are not able to fully account for the calories that were consumed in liquid form with a compensatory reduction in calories at subsequent meals,” Dr. Malik says. So, you may end up eating more calories overall. Here’s more on why sugary snacks could be destroying your body.
Sugar makes your brain suffer
The research is piling up that soda is bad for your brain, as are other added sugars. An animal study from Oregon State University found that a high-sugar diet led to cognitive impairments, including memory problems. And a UK study recently found the “tipping point” at which blood sugar negatively affects the progression of Alzheimer’s. “Excess sugar is well known to be bad for us when it comes to diabetes and obesity, but this potential link with Alzheimer’s disease is yet another reason that we should be controlling our sugar intake in our diets,” study author Dr. Omar Kassaar of the University of Bath said in a press release.
Sugar can lead to fatty liver disease
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High sugar consumption is one of the ways you’re secretly hurting your liver. “Fructose is metabolized in the liver, and consuming too much can lead to the production of fat in the liver, which is another path to adverse metabolic health,” Dr. Malik says. According to the University of California San Francisco, rates of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, as well as scarring of the liver, have doubled since 1980.
Sugar rots your teeth
What your dentist told you when you were a kid is true. “Oral bacteria love sugar just like we do, and when they feast on it, acid gets released as a byproduct,” says Dr. Sanda Moldovan, DDS. “This acid attacks the enamel of the teeth and allows bacteria to penetrate into the deeper layer of the tooth structure, called dentin.” The more sugar you eat, the more acidic the mouth becomes and the faster cavities develop. Plus, sugar feeds yeast growth, which might make the corners of your mouth or tongue red. “This also comes with a velcro-like feeling, or sensitivity to spicy foods,” she says. The sugar link is also a reason why diabetes is one of the diseases your teeth can reveal.
Sugar raises your risk of depression
Among the top foods that could make your depression worse is sugar, according to research. “I like to tell my patients there’s a truth to the saying, ‘You are what you eat,’” says psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, award-winning author of Depression in Later Life. “High levels of sugar in the form of simple carbohydrates leads to spikes and crashes in glucose levels, which can worsen mood, increase irritability, agitation, irregular sleeping, and increase inflammation.” Instead, munch on lean protein, complex carbs, and foods with omega-3s, folate, and B vitamins.
So how much can you have?
Many foods have way more sugar than you realize. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines say no more than 10 percent of your calories should come from added sugar—for a 2,000 calorie diet that’s 200. The American Heart Association is stricter, with a limit of 100 calories for women and 150 for men. “The term ‘added sugars’ indicates sugars that are added to processed and prepared foods, as well as sugars added at the time of consumption,” says Dr. Saltzman. “Most research focuses on these added sugars as potentially harmful.” For example, if you have a Milky Way, which contains 31 grams (124 calories) of added sugar, you’re practically at your limit already. Bottom line? Read nutrition labels to see how much you’re getting.