By Emma Stessman
Sugar is nutritional enemy number one right now, and for good reason. The sweet stuff can do some scary things to your body.
That’s not to say you need to cut it out entirely. If you haven’t already noticed, we’re big fans of an occasional conscious indulgence that satisfies your sweet tooth, and a little sugar every so often isn’t the issue. When it starts to rule our diets, though, it’s a cause for concern.
“I don’t think it is sugar, per se, but rather too much sugar, that can lead to health [problems],” explains Nicole Avena, PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of Why Diets Fail: Because You’re Addicted to Sugar.
And far too often, the average person is getting way too much without realizing it.
The World Health Organization recommends getting no more than five percent of daily calories from added sugar, a number that works out to be approximately 25 grams, or six teaspoons, for normal adults (and we say there’s no need for added sugar in your normal diet at all, except for treats!). But the average American consumes approximately 19.5 teaspoons, or 82 grams of added sugars per day, over three times the suggested limit.
Part of the problem is that sugar sneakily appears on nutrition labels under different guises (high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, and rice syrup are all forms of sugar) and that it shows up in unexpected places, like salad dressings and bread. Plus, it’s just really hard to kick the sweet stuff.
The first step? Getting informed on what it does to your body (and brain!), so you can get smarter about your own consumption. Below, we share the not-so-sweet truth about sugar.
Sugar and the Body
Before we dive deep into the science of sugar, there’s an important distinction to make. When we talk about sugar, we mean added sugars, like sucrose, the classic white crystals that are poured into morning coffee and baked into sweet desserts, or high-fructose corn syrup. For the most part, these are the sugars that lead to many of the health problems we see, like inflammation and obesity—not the sugar that occurs naturally in your favorite fruits and vegetables.
When you eat this kind of sugar, your body reacts almost immediately. There are “sweet” taste receptors in your mouth, and once they sense sugar, they send signals to your brain that trigger the release of various hormones and chemicals, like insulin, Dr. Avena explains.
Normally, insulin is released when your blood sugar is high, like after you eat a piece of cake, to help transport the sugar to cells across your body so it can be used for energy, lowering the amount that’s hanging out in your bloodstream. But with the repeated release of insulin, like when someone has chronically high blood sugar, the cells can become immune to insulin’s effects and require more of the hormone to absorb the sugar, a condition known as “insulin resistance.” This can lead to a slew of issues. First of all, since your cells can’t absorb the sugar, it gets stored as fat. And research shows ingesting sugary foods and beverages raises markers of inflammation in the blood. Inflammation, in turn, is at the root of many chronic diseases.
“Excess sugar intake has been noted as one of the primary contributors to the obesity problem, as our modern food environment is filled with processed foods that are high in added sugars and calories,” Dr. Avena says. “More than half of the United States is overweight or obese, and for some, this can lead to medical complications including increased risk for cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.”
Sugar and the Brain
Your constant desire for sugar can be brought on by bad habits or not eating enough, but sometimes a longing for the sweet stuff is more than just a passing craving.
“The criteria for addiction that has been put forth by the American Psychiatric Association has been met when the substance is sugar,” Dr. Avena says. Seriously: Regularly eating large amounts of sugar can cause changes in the brain’s dopamine and opioid systems that are similar to what you see in a person who is addicted to alcohol or nicotine. “These neurochemical changes can cause one to binge on sugar, go through withdrawal when one tries to abstain, and crave the sugar, as well. When we put this together with our modern food environment that is loaded with sugar and ads for sugar-rich foods all of the time, it makes it very hard for people to resist,” she says.
The bottom line
Some people have made the case that sugar’s health effects are so detrimental to the general population, the substance needs to be regulated through methods like soda taxes or age restrictions for purchasing sugary beverages.
The problem is, all the science that links excess sugar consumption to disease doesn’t show a direct cause and effect relationship. “A lot of the research at this point is associative,” Dr. Avena says. “When we look at human studies, it is difficult to do studies that would help prove causation because most humans are already eating a lot of sugar. Studies have been done in animal models that lend support to excess sugar being directly linked to addictive behaviors and future overeating, so we have some evidence there.”
For now, it’s up to you to kick sugar out of your diet. Keep an eye out for sneaky sugars on nutrition labels, and make sweet treats like ice cream and cookies into conscious indulgences, instead of regular dietary occurrences.