How Sugar Effects The Body
Sugar is perhaps the most loved, hated, and misunderstood of all foods, as well as one of the most controversial. Sugar occurs naturally in all foods that contain carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, and dairy. Carbohydrates are one of the main types of nutrients and are the most important source of energy for your body. Your digestive system changes carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar), which your body then uses for energy for your cells, tissues and organs.
So sugar is not something to demonize, fear, or condemn—it is essential for the functioning of the body. The real problem is highly processed sugars, excessive amounts of sugar, and added sugars that have a harmful effect on your body, especially when consumed for prolonged periods of time.
Food manufacturers often add sugar to products to increase flavor or extend shelf life. Americans average about 270 calories of sugar each day, that’s about 17 teaspoons a day, compared to the recommended limits of about 12 teaspoons per day or 200 calories. The top sources of added sugar are soft drinks, fruit drinks, flavored yogurts, cereals, cookies, cakes, candy, and most processed foods. However, added sugar is also present in items that you may not think of as sweetened, like soups, bread, cured meats, and ketchup. To complicate it further, added sugars can be hard to spot on nutrition labels since they can be listed under a number of names, such as corn syrup, agave nectar, palm sugar, cane juice, or sucrose.
Excess sugar in your diet can have a number of negative effects on your health. In this article, we will take a closer look at exactly how sugar can affect the various parts of your body.
Sugar Affects Your Brain
Eating sugar gives your brain a huge surge of a feel-good chemical called dopamine, which explains why you’re more likely to crave a candy bar at 4 p.m. than a healthy snack of fruit or vegetables. Since 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 the intense sugar cravings that so many people experience—and if you are familiar enough with these cravings, you know that eating more sugar doesn’t actually satisfy your craving, but it intensifies it.
According to Cassie Bjork, R.D., L.D., “Research shows that sugar can be even more addicting than cocaine.” She explains this further by pointing out that “Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain and affects the reward center, which leads to compulsive behavior, despite the negative consequences like weight gain, headaches, hormone imbalances, and more. Studies suggest that every time we eat sweets we are reinforcing those neuropathways, causing the brain to become increasingly hardwired to crave sugar, building up a tolerance like any other drug.”
According to research done on rats by Connecticut College, Oreo cookies activate more neurons in the brain’s pleasure center than cocaine does (and just like humans, the rats would eat the filling first).
A 2008 Princeton study found that, under certain circumstances, not only could rats become dependent on sugar, but this dependency correlated with several aspects of addiction, including craving, binging, and withdrawal.
The Effects of Sugar on Your Mood and Organs
When you eat candy or any other sugary treat, you get a quick burst of energy by raising your blood sugar levels fast (often referred to as a “sugar high”). When your levels drop as your cells absorb the sugar, you may feel jittery and anxious (often referred to as a “sugar crash”). However, frequent consumption of sugar begins to have an even more damaging effect on your mood beyond the simple sugar crash. Studies have linked a high sugar intake to a greater risk of depression in adults.
Many people are aware of the fact that eating too much sugar can be harmful to your teeth. This is because bacteria that cause cavities love to eat sugar lingering in your mouth after you eat something sweet. Excess added sugars, particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, is one of the leading causes of tooth decay in US children.
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.
Added sugars likely contain fructose or high fructose corn syrup. Fructose is processed in the liver, and in large amounts, can be detrimental to the health of this important organ. When fructose is broken down in the liver it is transformed into fat, which can lead to a number of health disorders such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which is seen as excess fat build-up in the liver, as well as Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which is characterized by scarring of the liver—this eventually cuts off blood supply to the liver, and could result in the need for a liver transplant.
Eating excess sugar causes extra insulin to be released in your bloodstream, which can affect the arteries throughout the body. It causes their walls to get inflamed, grow thicker than normal and more stiff, which stresses your heart and damages it over time. This can lead to heart disease, like heart failure, heart attacks, and strokes.
According to a 15-year study on added sugar and heart disease, participants who took in 25% or more of their daily calories as sugar were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10% added sugar. Overall, the odds of dying from heart disease rose in tandem with the percentage of sugar in the diet—and that was true regardless of a person’s age, sex, physical activity level, and body-mass index (a measure of weight).
Every time you eat, your pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that allows your body to use sugar (glucose) from carbohydrates for energy or to store glucose for future use. Insulin also helps to keep your blood sugar level from getting too high or too low. If you consume too much sugar and your body stops responding properly to insulin, your pancreas starts producing even more insulin. Eventually, your overworked pancreas will break down and your blood sugar levels will rise, setting you up for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Research on the effect of sugar on the body reveals that sugar causes inflammation, the body's attempt at self-protection to remove harmful stimuli and begin the healing process. Inflammation is an essential process of the body’s immune system, however, chronic levels of inflammation in the body are linked to a variety of health issues, and is even said by some to be the root cause of most diseases.
Aside from the negative effect that inflammation has on the total health of the body, the joints are especially impaired by increased levels of inflammation in the body, and inflammation is often associated as being a major cause of joint pain. Studies also show that sugar consumption can increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Sugar Increases the Body Weight
As many people are well aware, consuming foods with more sugar is directly correlated with weight gain. 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. One study even found that people who increased their sugar intake gained about 1.7 pounds in less than 2 months. Excess amounts of sugar can inflame fat cells causing them to release chemicals that increase weight.
The average American consumes a greater amount of sugar each day than is typically suggested, and over time, this can lead to a variety of health issues. Sugar has gotten a bad rap, and for good reason, as processed sugars and excess amounts of sugar in the body are tied to so many health problems, and clearly effect the body negatively in a number of ways. It is important to understand, however, that the issue is processed sugars, added sugars, and excessive amounts of sugar—not sugar itself, as sugar (glucose) is the body’s primary source of energy.
You can greatly improve the health of your body by limiting the amount of sugar that you consume and avoiding foods that have processed sugars or added sugars. Doing so will protect your body from the many damaging effects excess sugar can have, and will help you to live an overall happier and healthier life.