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How Does Added Sugar Affect The Body?

Katrina Larsen, MS, RDN, CDCES

Published in Nutrition

9 min read

August 22, 2022
A plate of chocolate chip cookies next to a glass of milk
A plate of chocolate chip cookies next to a glass of milk

Sucrose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, glucose… Do these sound familiar? Sugar can be hiding in your foods under many different names.

Sugar is a natural component of many foods, like milk, fruits, and vegetables. These are known as “natural sugars,” and they come from carbohydrate sources that provide vitamins and minerals that your body needs.

Added sugar, on the other hand, is sugar that has been added to a food or beverage after it has been produced or prepared. These sugars can increase your chance of both prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, as well as inflammation and obesity.

So, why do added sugars have such a different impact on the body? And how much is safe to consume? Read on to find out.

What Can Happen When You Consume Too Much Sugar

a box full of donuts

According to The Dietary Guidelines of America advises that adults limit their added sugar consumption to 10 percent of their total daily calories. For the average person, that translates to no more than 200 calories per day, or about 12 teaspoons.

The American Heart Association, on the other hand, recommends limiting your added sugar consumption to no more than six percent of your daily calorie intake. The risk of negative health effects can increase in individuals who consume large quantities of added sugar.

Here are six ways too much sugar can harm your health.

Consuming High Amounts of Sugar Can Lead to Heart Disease

A diet high in added sugar can increase your risk of high blood sugar, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, and obesity — all of which are independent risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

In fact, studies have shown that a diet high in added sugar can make you three times as likely to die from heart disease.

Excessive Sugar Can Cause Unhealthy Weight Gain

a woman who looks disappointed standing on a scale

Too much sugar can make it harder to maintain a healthy weight. One reason for this is that added sugars, especially fructose, can lead to leptin resistance.

Leptin is a hormone that is crucial in maintaining a healthy body weight because it signals fullness, suppresses hunger, and regulates your energy. If your body doesn’t respond to leptin, it can be harder to tell when you are full, which can lead to overeating and weight gain.

Eating A Lot of Sugary Foods Can Cause Acne

A diet high in sugar may lead to acne. This is because foods that are high in sugar are absorbed more quickly into your bloodstream, which can spike your blood sugar and cause inflammation and higher sebum production.

Blood sugar spikes can also have a negative effect on your hormones. Acne can also be impacted by hormonal imbalances that can be made far worse by poor glycemic control.

A study of 2,300 teenagers in Turkey found that people who frequently ate sugar, pastries, and cakes had a higher chance of developing acne. These findings were confirmed by a 2022 review of scientific evidence, which found that a high-glycemic diet and high carbohydrate intake were associated with acne.

Increased Sugar Intake Can Cause Joint Pain

Consuming excess sugar can lead to chronically high blood sugar levels. High blood sugar can cause chronic inflammation, which can lead to joint pain and other adverse health effects.

One 2016 study even identified drinking sugar-sweetened beverages as an individual risk factor in developing rheumatoid arthritis. This inflammatory disease causes pain and swelling in the joints.

High blood sugar levels can also cause an overproduction of something called reactive oxygen species, or ROS, in your body. These ROS can cause inflammation and damage to your cell tissues, which can lead to pain in your joints.

Increases Your Chances of Developing Type 2 Diabetes

blood sugar finger prinks

A diet high in sugar can greatly increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. High sugar consumption can increase your blood sugar, which signals your body to release insulin, a hormone that helps your cells use and store glucose for energy.

If your blood sugar is consistently high, your body will release more and more insulin. Eventually, this will make your body less responsive to insulin, which is one of the main risk factors for type 2 diabetes.

One 2013 study of people in 175 countries found that every 150 calories from sugar consumed per day increased the risk of diabetes by about one percent. This is equivalent to about one can of soda a day.

May Increase The Risk of Cancer

Studies have found that high sugar consumption may even increase your risk of developing certain types of cancer. Obesity is estimated to be a major risk factor in 20 percent of cancer cases. As we mentioned earlier, a diet high in sugar has been linked to obesity.

There is also a possible link between insulin resistance and an increased risk of developing cancer. However, more research is needed to establish exactly how these two conditions affect each other.

7 Ways to Kick Your Sugar Habit

a bowl of blueberries

If you’re trying to limit your sugar intake, there are a few habits you can try implementing to make it easier. Here are seven tips to help you kick your sugar habit.

1) Consume More Healthy Fats

Dietary fats help your body absorb nutrients, protect your organs, and are crucial for hormone production. Different types of fats have different effects on your body.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are two types of fat that can have positive effects on your health. Polyunsaturated fats have been found to support cardiovascular health. Monounsaturated fats can reduce your LDL cholesterol and have anti-inflammatory properties.

These fats also contain vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects your cells and is needed for immune function. Studies show that consumption of fat can help you feel full longer, which can keep you from reaching for sugary snacks or beverages between meals.

Try reaching for some of these foods high in healthy fats the next time you crave a sugary snack:

  • Walnuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring)
  • Soybeans
  • Avocado
  • Organic, unsweetened peanut or nut butter

2) Add More Protein to Your Diet

 toast with a fried egg

Focusing on increasing your protein intake may help you reduce some of the sugar in your diet. Studies have shown that adding more protein to your diet can increase evening and late-night fullness, appetite control, and general satiety.

Protein can also support healthy blood sugar levels, especially when paired with a carbohydrate. Try adding these healthy protein sources to your diet to reduce cravings and stay full for longer:

  • Eggs
  • Legumes such as lentils, beans, split peas, and chickpeas
  • Lean poultry 
  • Quinoa
  • Fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines
  • Plain Greek yogurt

3) Eat More Fruit

Fruits contain natural sugars, and have been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Apart from their vitamins and minerals, many fruits are also good sources of fiber, which can help you feel full longer.

Fiber also has a positive impact on blood sugar and digestive health. Because it can’t be absorbed by the body, foods high in fiber will be less likely to lead to blood sugar spikes.

While fruit can help you satisfy your sweet tooth, it’s still important to watch your portion sizes. Dietary guidelines recommend consuming one and a half to two cups of fruit per day for women, and two to two ad a half cups of fruit per day for men.

Next time you have a sugar craving, try one of these high-fiber fruits:

  • Raspberries
  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Strawberries

4) Opt for Water Over Sports Drinks or Sodas

a woman drinking water

Sugary drinks account for about one third of America's added sugar consumption. Sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, flavored milk, and some fruit juices and smoothies are loaded with added sugar.

These sugary beverages can lead to weight gain, which can increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Studies have also suggested that sugary drinks do not lead to feelings of fullness.

Drinking water, on the other hand, can help you feel satiated. So, the next time you’re thirsty, opt for water instead of a sugary beverage.

5) Eat More Complex Carbohydrates

Not all carbs have the same effect on your health. Added sugars are categorized as simple carbohydrates, which are digested quickly and can lead to a spike in blood sugar.

Complex carbs, on the other hand, are digested more slowly and give your body a steadier supply of blood sugar and help limit energy crashes.

Consider reaching for these complex carbs instead of sugar:

  • Fruits and veggies that are high in fiber, like pears, celery, avocados, and leafy greens
  • Legumes, like beans, lentils, split peas, and chickpeas
  • Whole grains, like barley, quinoa, or brown rice

6) Get More Sleep

a girl sleeping in her bed

A good night’s sleep is important for many reasons. Surprisingly, it can even have an impact on your appetite and cravings. Studies have found that sleep deprivation may decrease your brain’s ability to recognize fullness, and even increase your desire for high-calorie foods.

Conversely, a diet high in sugar may actually affect your ability to get enough sleep. Practicing good sleep hygiene can help reverse this cycle.

Try to get at least seven hours of sleep per night, make an effort to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Avoiding large meals close to bedtime is another way to help ensure quality sleep.

7) Reduce Stress in Your Life

Stress doesn’t just affect your mental health—it can have many physical effects as well, including on your blood sugar. Stress can increase the production of cortisol, a hormone that increases energy but also your blood sugar levels.

Studies have also shown that people tend to reach for sugar during times of stress. This is because stress can alter hormone and serotonin signaling in the brain. At the same time, a diet high in sugar can increase depression and anxiety and even lead to obesity, keeping you in a cycle of stress and overeating.

Staying active, maintaining a healthy diet, keeping a journal, practicing mindfulness, and connecting with other people are all ways to reduce stress in your life.

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Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Reviewed by: Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.

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