Is it nearly impossible to resist devouring a cupcake or doughnut? You’re not alone. Most of us satisfy our sweet tooth, even though we know it’s not good for us. Too many people, however, take an all-or-nothing approach to junk food, which makes it hard to quit. You don’t have to stop eating sugar completely, but eating less can improve and even save your life.
Refined sugars — found in nearly all processed junk foods you know and love — are more harmful than most realize. Here’s how too much sugar could put your health, and your life, at risk. (One page 9, we explain how one organ may struggle to recover from your sugar binges.)
1. Sugar starves your body of vital nutrients
Research doesn’t lie; we’re eating too many processed foods. The refined sugars added to them are some of the most dangerous chemicals you can dump into your body — and you likely do it all the time. Foods with added sugars generally aren’t healthy.
When you eat meals high in sugar, you tend to fill up on empty calories, and don’t leave enough room for protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Malnutrition, even when you’re overeating, can cause a number of health problems — everything from heart issues to death.
2. You start storing fat all over your body
It’s not fat that makes you fat — it’s sugar. If you eat foods high in sugar, you probably eat fewer nutritious foods, which makes weight gain more probable and weight loss more difficult. One review found people who increased their sugar intake gained weight, while those who decreased their intake lost weight.
Your body doesn’t know what to do with all the extra sugar you eat, so it stores it away. Cutting back on refined sugars isn’t the only step to eating healthier and decreasing your risk of disease, but it’s an important one.
3. Next thing you know you’ll be overeating often
Have you ever wondered why you feel full after eating a piece of fruit, but ravenous after just one piece of chocolate? Processed foods contain refined sugars, which according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, can actually make you feel hungrier the more you eat.
A hormone called ghrelin is released when your stomach is empty, and when your stomach is full, secretion stops. But eating large amounts of fructose (found in sugar-sweetened drinks) messes with this appetite system. If it goes on for too long, consistent overeating could result in dangerous diseases.
4. You could develop diabetes
Your pancreas is responsible for producing insulin, which helps the sugar you eat move from your blood to your cells. According to Mayo Clinic, type 2 diabetes develops when the body becomes resistant to insulin. High blood sugar causes your pancreas to produce more insulin, and if this continues, it simply can’t keep up.
Type 2 diabetes has many risk factors, but a sugar-heavy diet is often what pushes your body from insulin resistant to diabetic. Many cases of type 2 diabetes are both preventable and reversible with big lifestyle changes. This usually involves a combination of weight loss, regular exercise, and eating fewer refined sugars.
5. You could get cancer
Insulin resistance can cause more long-term damage than a blood glucose meter can predict. You don’t often hear about high blood sugar when discussing risk factors for cancer. However, a review published in the Journal of Diabetes Research suggests having consistently high blood sugar can increase your cancer risk.
Diabetics often experience inflammation, which can create an environment that supports the development of cancer cells. If you have diabetes, this is one reason to keep your blood sugar levels under control.
6. You may crawl back into bed after a sugar crash
With every sugar high comes an inevitable crash. Sugar crashes don’t feel good, and they could impact your long-term health. According to Everyday Health, low blood sugar can result in increased hunger, anxiety, restlessness, dizziness, and more.
Increased feelings of hunger can create what feel like intense sugar cravings, which can cause overeating and weight gain. Maintaining normal blood sugar levels, whether you have diabetes or not, can help you avoid consistent sugar crashes and ensure better health over your lifetime.
7. Sugar can lead to depression
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests postmenopausal women are at a higher risk of becoming depressed as a result of a diet high in added sugars, but it can also happen to anyone.
Too much added sugar can mess with your hormones and cause inflammatory responses that affect your brain. (Chocolate cake may make you feel better short-term, but the feeling won’t last, especially if you make it a habit.) Thankfully, a healthy diet may improve your mood, calm your anxiety, and make you feel less stressed.
8. Your arteries could start closing up
Your arteries, which are responsible for transporting blood throughout your body, are susceptible to harm if too much sugar is present. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, high blood sugar is a major risk factor for atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in your arteries.
Your arteries must be able to transport oxygen-rich blood throughout your body in order to keep your organs functioning. Depending on the arteries affected, untreated atherosclerosis could cause a stroke or kidney failure.
9. Say goodbye to a healthy liver
Your liver is primarily responsible for detoxifying chemicals and metabolizing drugs in your body. Without normal liver function, the toxins in your body could eventually kill you. Fructose could be considered one of these toxins if you eat too much of it over a long period of time — really. Research suggests too much fructose could lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It’s up to your liver to metabolize fructose. The same way too much alcohol can damage your liver, too much fructose can lead to serious complications. If a food contains high-fructose corn syrup, try to avoid it.
10. Your heart will suffer the consequences
Sugar-sweetened drinks are terrible for your heart. | iStock.com/RTimagesResearchers believe sugar, not just salt, could contribute to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for a variety of heart problems. According to JAMA Internal Medicine, consuming large amounts of added sugars increases your risk of dying from heart disease. And Harvard Health Publications estimates that people who get 10% or more of their daily calories from sugar get them from drinks with added sugars. Because sugar-sweetened beverages are so problematic for so many people, reducing your consumption of soda, juice, and energy drinks could save your heart from irreversible damage.
11. Your brain function may start to decrease
You can download all the brain training apps you want, but if refined sugars are a regular staple in your diet, you’re likely going to suffer the consequences. Too much sugar can impact your memory and cognitive function, especially as you age. The Huffington Post says too much sugar is even a risk factor for dementia. Your brain needs sugar to continue functioning normally, but overloading it can cause even more long-term damage. If you really care about your brain, be mindful of what you’re eating.
12. Sugar addiction is real — and you could get it
Sugar isn’t technically a drug, but you can become addicted to it pretty easily. According to Scientific American, your brain responds to refined sugars similar to how it might respond to gambling or cocaine. Without much prompting, your brain’s pleasure and reward centers make sweet treats feel like necessities. You might start to crave refined carbohydrates — even certain pastas and breads — when you aren’t even hungry. If you’re trying to quit sugar, it’s not going to be an easy process. But knowing your brain is playing tricks on you might help convince you to at least start cutting back.
13. You might die earlier than you thought
Exercise, fruits and vegetables, and a consistent sleep schedule could all help you live longer. None of these things matter, though, if you aren’t mindful about the ingredients in your food. Research shows added sugars increase your risk for developing a number of potentially life-threatening diseases, including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. A sedentary lifestyle, chronic sleep deprivation, and poor nutrition are all risk factors that can damage your health and make you miserable. Reducing the amount of sweeteners in your diet won’t necessarily solve all your problems. However, it could be an essential first step to leading a much longer, healthier life.
You should know companies sneak it into your food
Though they’re required by law to list all nutrients and ingredients, manufacturers don’t make it easy to spot different types of sugars in your go-to snack foods. This makes cutting back on processed sugars even harder. Sugar might go by dozens of different names, even on the same food label. Many of them don’t even have the word sugar in them at all, like high-fructose corn syrup, one of its most common pseudonyms. Always look past the nutrition facts panel and look through the ingredients list. If any variation of sugar appears toward the beginning of the list, try your best to find a healthier alternative.
Here’s how to start cutting back
You’ve probably heard it before, but cooking more of your own food is a huge help when it comes to controlling what goes into your body. Just think of barbecue sauce as an example. A 2-tablespoon serving from a bottle has 14 grams of sugar, according to the USDA Food Composition Database. You can do much better in your own kitchen. And when you do need a sweet treat? Go for smarter options, such as chocolate-dipped bananas and homemade ice pops.