We have become accustomed to high amounts of sugar in our foods, so much so that manufacturers often add extra sugar just to quell our sweet tooth, but the problem is all that sugar is harming our bodies in ways we may have never imagined. Let’s talk a little more about the health dangers of too much sugar.
What Is Sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate and is found in many different forms, whether it comes from plants, fruits, or honey. Back in ancient times, most people used honey to sweeten their foods, and some chewed on raw sugarcane to extract the sweetness. By the 5th century AD, sugar was discovered in it’s crystallized form and began being traded throughout the world and by the 19th century, sugar was becoming a household staple.
Today, sugar is processed into several different forms from white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, powdered sugar, and many more. We use it in almost everything that’s been processed from cereal, sauces, bread, soup, candy, ice cream, soda, yogurt, chips, dressings, and more. Aside from making and eating whole foods at home, it’s nearly impossible to avoid sugar in foods that are commercially prepared.
Types Of Naturally Occurring Sugar
Let’s go over some of the naturally occurring sugar in the world:
- Glucose – A naturally occurring byproduct of photosynthesis in plants and fruits. Our bodies use glucose for energy, or turning it into glycogen for liver and muscle fuel, but surprisingly enough our bodies can actually produce glucose when needed.
- Fructose – One of the sugars most people are familiar with, fructose occurs naturally in fruit, cane sugar, and honey.
- Sucrose – A more complex sugar, this sugar is found in the roots of the sugar beet and the stems of the sugar cane. It can also be found alongside glucose in some plants and fruits.
- Lactose – This is a sugar found in milk. Children posses the enzymes to properly break down the lactose in their mother’s milk, however some adults lose this enzyme resulting in lactose intolerance.
So where does the typical sandy white sugar we’re so familiar with actually come from? It’s usually processed from either the sugar beet, or sugar cane which are harvested, processed, and refined to get what we commonly know as “table sugar”. This sugar has absolutely zero nutritional value, but causes a host of health issues.
What About High-Fructose Corn Syrup?
This should really be in another article on it’s own, but the simple version is this: Stay away!
High-Fructose Corn Syrup is processed from corn as a cheap alternative to processed sugar. It contains both glucose and fructose which makes HFCS worse than regular sugar. Even though some scientists claim it affects our bodies just the same, it actually causes us to gain more weight than regular sugar consumption does, as this study from Princeton University points out:
Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.
In addition to causing significant weight gain in lab animals, long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup also led to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and a rise in circulating blood fats called triglycerides.
The Rise Of Sugar In The Modern Diet
Back in 1822, the average American consumed around 45 grams of sugar, which is equivalent to one can of soda, every 5 days. By 2012, Americans were consuming a whopping 765 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 17 cans of soda, every 5 days. That’s a 1600% increase in sugar intake in less than 200 years!
How Did We Come To Eat So Much Sugar In Our Diets?
When grocery stores started to become mainstream, it made our access to food way easier which resulted in food manufacturers to start producing shelf stable foods. Over the decades, grocery stores started supplying boxes and cans of processed foods, which were sold as “convenience foods”, but were loaded with sugars. Soon, we because accustomed to eating sugar in all forms and our diets started to suffer.
But it’s not entirely our fault.
Sugar Is Highly Addictive
One of the main reasons we consume so much sugar in modern times is because it’s incredibly addictive, so much so that studies have shown sugar to be as addictive as cocaine or heroin. Sugar releases the chemical dopamine which is responsible for that “feel good” feeling in our bodies, which is also the same chemical that’s released when taking drugs. That would explain why some people have a hard time eating only one slice of pizza, or can’t put down the Oreos.
Our brains are literally hijacked into craving sugar, just how drugs induce the same affect on us. If that doesn’t speak volumes for just how dangerous sugar consumption really is, there are many more harmful effects on our health that sugar can do.
6 Harmful Effects Of Sugar On Our Health
1. Bad For Your Teeth
After years of childhood dentist visits, we should all pretty much have this ingrained into our minds, but it’s worth repeating. Eating sugar is basically feeding the bad bacteria in our mouth which leads to tooth decay and cavities. Even if we brush our teeth right afterward, the sugar can still cause issues from the inside of our bodies.
2. It Can Overload Your Liver
Our liver can only metabolize a certain amount of sugar at a time, which is not a problem if we’re only eating small amount of it (like in fruits), or just finished burning it off through exercise. The problem is when we over consume too much processed sugar and we don’t burn it off by exercising, our livers end up overloaded causing fatty liver disease.
3. Sugar Causes Diabetes
Our pancreas produces a very important chemical called insulin, which is responsible for keeping glucose levels in our bloodstream in check. Having too much glucose in our system is extremely toxic, so our insulin kicks in to keep it in check. However, when we consume too much sugar (glucose), our body can become so overloaded to the point that our cells become resistant to insulin which can lead to diabetes.
4. Can Lead To Cancer
This one is terrifying, but apparently studies have shown it to be very plausible. Scientists believe that when we consume too much sugar and as a result have elevated levels of insulin in our bodies, these levels can contribute to cancer.
5. Sugar Causes Obesity
When we consume too much sugar and our bodies can’t get rid of the excess amounts, that sugar is turned into fat and stored away for later use. Unfortunately, that later usage never comes because we continue to eat sugar, which causes more fat storage and so on. With this vicious cycle, we end up getting fatter and fatter which has likely caused this increase in obesity in America.
6. Increases Cholesterol Levels
For years we have been told that fat causes heart disease because it raises cholesterol levels, but new studies are showing that saturated fat is actually harmless. Sugar, on the other hand, has been shown to increase triglycerides, raise blood insulin levels, and increase abdominal obesity which are all contributing factors for heart disease.
How To Reduce Sugar From Your Diet
The next question after reading how dangerous sugar is to our health is “how can we reduce the amount of sugar in our diet”? If you think cutting out foods with sugar or added sugar is the key, you’re on the right track…but there’s more to it than just that.
We’ve all heard by now that cutting carbs from our diet may help us lose weight, but there’s actually a lot of science behind this and here’s why: Simple carbohydrates are processed the same way sugar is in our bodies.
This means that eating things like white rice, white bread, french fries, etc., have the same effect on our bodies as eating cookies, cake, and ice cream do. The more refined, or processed our food is, the likelier it will be converted into sugar in our body for processing.
But not all carbohydrates are bad. Complex carbohydrates are carbs combined with fiber, which takes our body a lot longer to process, doesn’t spike our blood sugar, and results in a lower insulin level. This is why eating fruit in moderation is perfectly fine because fruit has fiber in it and doesn’t spike our blood sugar as much as processed food would. Just avoid fruit juice like the plague because there’s absolutely no fiber left over in juice which makes it a pure sugary drink.
The best way to start eliminating sugar from your diet is to do it gradually. Because of it’s addictive qualities, quitting cold turkey may cause adverse withdrawal effects that can drive you straight back to sugar to help you feel better. Believe me, I’ve experienced this myself and it’s not pleasant!
The best way to get over our sugar addiction is to incorporate more whole fruits and vegetables into our diet, and less simple carbohydrates or sugary foods. Gradually over time our bodies will readjust and need less and less sugar to satisfy us, resulting in decreased sugar cravings. You can also follow a 21-day sugar detox diet to kickstart your path to health.
What Types Of Sugar Are In Foods?
You might be surprised at how much sugar is hidden away in food, but manufacturers are always trying to find new ways of labeling sugar so you don’t think their food is all that bad. Here is a list of sugars you might find on an ingredient label:
- Agave nectar
- Brown sugar
- Cane crystals
- Cane sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Crystalline fructose
- Evaporated cane juice
- Organic evaporated cane juice
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Raw sugar
If you’re concerned about how much sugar you’re consuming in your food, always check the label for any hidden sugars that you may not be aware of. I was surprised at how many food items, that I thought were healthy, actually had sugar in them. If you would like a more visual reference of how much sugar is in food, check out SugarStacks.com.
What About Sugar Alternatives?
There are a few sugar alternatives that are chemically created and more harmful to us than sugar alone, but there are also some naturally occurring alternatives that have additional benefits to them. I’ll cover some of the main alternatives here:
The Good Alternatives
- Honey – Yes honey does have a high sugar content as it’s mostly fructose and glucose, but it also has some pretty impressive nutrients, minerals, and health benefits that sugar does not have. Honey is a great anti-inflammatory and has been shown to have a minimal impact on blood sugar. To maximize the benefits, I recommend an organic raw honey over processed honey.
- Stevia – Stevia is a naturally occurring sweetener derived from the leaves of the Stevia plant. It’s 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, but shows a much lower impact on blood glucose levels. While there are still studies to be done on Stevia, it does show promising benefits as an alternative to sugar.
- Xylitol – This is actually a sugar alcohol, which is an alcohol prepared from sugar. It’s sweeter than sugar, but has a lower affect on blood sugar and does not cause tooth decay. It also has the same consistency as regular table sugar, which makes it a great alternative for baking. Beware, though, because consuming too much sugar alcohol can lead to gas, bloating, and diarrhea. This is my favorite brand of Xylitol.
- Erythritol – Another sugar alcohol, this is actually one of my favorites for baking. It’s absorbed by the body before hitting the large intestines which means it doesn’t cause the same gastrointestinal issues as other sugar alcohols do. It also has minimal impact on blood sugar levels, which makes it a great alternative to sugar. One side effect that some people find off putting is the “cooling” effect it has on the tongue. Still, one of my favorite alternatives to sugar.
The Bad Alternatives
- Aspartame – This is probably one of the worst chemically created alternatives to sugar out there. Aspartame is most commonly known as Equal and NutraSweet, and is found in about 90% of all diet soda drinks. It has been linked to a myriad of health issues including cancer.
- Saccharin – Another lab-created sugar substitute, Saccharin has been linked to an increased risk of cancer in rats. While more studies need to be done on this substitute, it’s better to stay away from it completely.
- Sucralose – Better known as Splenda, sucralose is said to be 600 times sweeter than sugar but since studies are still out on the dangers of this artificial sweetener, it’s another one that you might want to avoid.
The Bottom Line
There is so much more information on sugar that I didn’t cover here, but the bottom line is that sugar should really be avoided at all costs, except for naturally occurring sugar found in whole fruits and vegetables. Once you start eliminating sugary foods from your diet, you will start to notice a dramatic and positive affect on your health. It’s definitely not an easy road to travel down, depending on how addicted your body is to sugar, but it’s absolutely worth it in the end. Your body will thank you!
Do you worry about consuming too much sugar in your diet? How have you eliminated sugar? Share below!