Sugar and your health

Created date

August 14th, 2018
Donuts and candies sit next to a layer of sugar, in which someone has written "sugar"

How does sugar impact your health?

Your digestive system changes carbohydrates into sugar—blood sugar called glucose—and it uses this vital fuel as energy for every cell in your body. 

Sugar and your body

If sugar is so essential to survival, why is dietary sugar a bad thing? After all, Mother Nature has made sugar in various forms an integral part of many foods.

Research is showing us that sugar added to foods by humans, not Mother Nature, is usually the problem. “Too much added sugar can contribute to nutritional deficiencies by supplying calories without providing vitamins and minerals,” says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D.N., L.D., assistant professor at University of South Florida’s College of Public Health and spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association. “Extra sugar can also cause tooth decay and contribute to obesity, poor control of diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

The effects of added sugar that lead to cardiovascular disease include elevated cholesterol, which can clog your coronary arteries, and higher triglycerides. “High triglycerides may increase your risk of stroke,” says Raina Patel, M.D., physician at Eagle’s Trace, an Erickson Living community in Houston, Tex.

Excess sugar can also aggravate preexisting conditions. “Sugar can lead to inflammation, which can worsen arthritis,” Wright adds.

In addition to the sugar already naturally present in foods, average Americans consume 22 tsp (almost one-half cup) more each day, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). “Like excess dietary sodium, most added sugar in the American diet comes from processed foods,” Wright says.

Because of the link to heart disease, the AHA recommends that women consume no more than 6 tsp (2 grams) of added sugar daily and men no more than 9 tsp (36 grams). “To look at it another way, the World Health Organization recommends that added sugar should not exceed 5% of your total daily calories,” Wright says.

All natural sugar is not good

Even if you avoid added sugars, you can still consume too much naturally occurring sugar—especially if you drink 100% fruit juice. “Advertisers are adept at highlighting positive attributes of foods, not negative aspects,” Patel says. “The claim of ‘no added sugar’ doesn’t mean a product isn’t still high in sugar.”

Take a look at a label on 100% concord grape juice. Most contain around 35 to 40 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving. One cup of orange juice has about 20 to 25 grams.

Research shows that your body processes the natural sugar in fruit juice the same way it processes added sugar in sugar-sweetened beverages. “Foods high in fiber can sometimes attenuate the effect of sugar on your blood glucose,” Patel says. “Eating an apple, for example, will not have the same negative effect as drinking a glass of apple juice because apples have fiber.”

Hide-and-seek sweets

You know the obvious hiding places—sweetened beverages, desserts, jellies, and so forth. But pick up a processed food off the shelf and there’s a good chance it will contain added sugar. You’ll find it in salad dressings, breads, frozen foods, condiments, cooking sauces, and pasta sauces. Breakfast cereals—even some that contain healthful ingredients like raisin bran—can still be very high in added sugar.

Added sugars go by many names, but soon you will no longer have to interpret the ingredients list to find it.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now recommended that food manufacturers differentiate between added and natural sugars and indicate the amount (in grams) of each type on the nutrition information labels. Manufacturers with at least $10 million in annual food sales have until January 1, 2020, to comply, and manufacturers with less than $10 million have until January 1, 2021. Until then, the AHA states that if a product has no fruit or milk products in the ingredients, then all of the sugars in the food are from added sugars.

How to enjoy sweet tastes in a healthy way

The AHA recommends that you cut your added sugar amount in half and then gradually go down from there. Your brain can become accustomed to less sugar in the same way it becomes accustomed to less salt. “Drink water spruced up with lemon, unsweetened tea, or low-fat milk instead of sweetened beverages,” Wright suggests. “Trade sweet foods for naturally sweet whole fruit, and buy plain foods and sweeten them yourself. For example, sweeten oatmeal with a little honey and berries.”

If you like to bake, cut the amount of sugar called for in the recipe by one-third or even one-half, or use extracts instead. In some recipes you can use unsweetened applesauce instead of sugar.

Sugar substitutes in moderation are safe for healthy people. “The FDA states that sugar substitutes, or high-intensity sweeteners, including acesulfame-K, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, advantame, and sucralose, are safe to eat in the amounts that people typically consume,” Wright says.

“Some studies show that certain artificial sweeteners may trigger the pancreas to release insulin,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., author of Diabetes Is Optional (2018, To Your Health Books). “But I suspect that, overall, artificial sweeteners in moderation could be a better choice for your health in the long term than sugar.”