If you put a bunch of different dieticians in a room, odds are they’ll have a lot of conflicting opinions about food and health. With so many different ways to eat — keto, paleo, vegetarian, vegan, Mediterranean, and so on — there’s a wide variety of views among food experts when it comes to the best way to nourish your body.
However, there is something almost all diet professionals agree on: eating too much sugar is bad for you.
While the occasional treat won’t kill you, eating high-sugar foods on a regular basis contributes to a variety of health problems. Research shows that excess sugar intake links to increased risk of heart disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and even worn down tooth enamel.
A high-sugar diet can also contribute to weight gain, driving sugar cravings and false hunger that make it much harder to stay fit.
But how exactly does sugar do all that damage? What happens to your body when you eat sugar?
This article will take a look at what sugar actually does in your body, and why it can contribute to a variety of health issues when you eat it in excess.
#1: You Eat Carbs
When you eat any carbohydrate, it travels to your stomach, where your digestion breaks it down into glucose.
#2: Carbs Turn Into Glucose
The glucose then travels into your small intestine, absorbs through your intestinal wall, and releases into your bloodstream. From there, your blood carries glucose throughout your body, using it to feed cells that need energy.
When you consume refined carbs (sugar especially) in moderation, this process isn’t a problem. It’s a perfectly viable way to get energy.
But the issue with eating sugar and other refined carbs is the speed at which you absorb them into your blood. Because they’re already refined, your digestion has to do minimal work to break them down into glucose.
As a result, sugar makes it into your bloodstream very quickly, and too much of it will cause a sudden spike in your blood glucose levels.
#3: You Get High Blood Sugar
High blood sugar levels (also called hyperglycemia) damage your organs and blood vessels. Your body knows this, so when your blood sugar gets too high, your pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that controls how you process sugar.
#4: You Crash
Insulin basically mops up sugar from your blood. it tells your liver and cells to pull sugar out of your bloodstream and store it, reducing your blood sugar levels back to a safe range.
However, when you eat a lot of sugar at once, your body may overcorrects. In its haste to bring your blood sugar levels back down, insulin pulls too much sugar from your blood, and you end up with low blood sugar.
This is the science of a sugar crash. You eat sugar, your blood sugar levels jump up immediately, your body produces insulin to deal with the problem, insulin causes your blood sugar to crash, and you end up sluggish and mentally foggy, with sugar cravings as your body tries to convince you to bring your blood sugar back up.
It’s easy to get caught in the rollercoaster ride of sugar crashes and sugar cravings. It becomes a vicious cycle, and the longer it goes on, the more desensitized your body becomes to insulin.
That means the swings between high blood sugar and low blood sugar get worse and worse over time. Your body’s progressive desensitization to sugar is called insulin resistance[*]. It’s a sign of pre-diabetes and a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Eating sweet stuff is fine on occasion, but when you make sugary foods part of your daily diet, you increase your risk of a variety of cardiovascular diseases, as well as type 2 diabetes.
Research shows a strong link between high sugar consumption and:
- Weight gain/obesity[*]
- Heart disease[*,*]
- Fatty liver disease [*]
- Poor oral health, including cavities and tooth enamel damage[*]
Eating less sugar is one of the best things you can do for your weight, heart, brain, and teeth.
A while back, researchers published a study titled “Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward.” In it, they gave rats a choice between water sweetened with saccharin, an artificial sweetener 400x sweeter than table sugar, and water containing cocaine. A staggering 94% of the rats chose the intensely sweet water over the cocaine[*].
This study led a lot of people (and news outlets) to conclude that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. That’s not a fair conclusion for a variety of reasons — but the study did trigger a fair amount of research into whether or not sugar is addictive for humans.
The results suggest that sugar can be addictive, especially for certain people[*,*]. Sugar disrupts your brain’s reward pathways and can cause intense cravings, as well as withdrawal symptoms when you stop eating high-sugar foods.
If you feel like you’re addicted to sugar, you may want to try a ketogenic diet. It can help you break the cycle of sugar cravings and improve your energy levels and health, as well as your relationship with food.
In the last few years, alternatives to white sugar have become more and more popular. A lot of “healthy” recipes use coconut sugar, agave syrup, molasses, and other sweeteners that they claim are better for you than standard table sugar.
Many of these sweeteners are high in fructose, which doesn’t have the same impact on your blood sugar that table sugar does. Because fructose is low-glycemic, some people think that it’s better for you. The same argument has been made in support of high-fructose corn syrup.
However, excess fructose is still bad for you — you just process it differently than you do table sugar.
Your liver processes and stores fructose, which keeps it from getting into your blood and spiking your blood sugar levels. But fructose is especially hard on your liver.
It causes your liver to synthesize and store fat — a process called de novo lipogenesis. Over time, you develop fat build up in your liver, which can eventually lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease[*]. Table sugar does this as well, but to a lesser extent.
Whether you’re eating ice cream sweetened with white sugar, having a sugary drink that contains high-fructose corn syrup, or eating a vegan energy bar sweetened with dates and agave nectar, the short-term and long-term impacts on your body are similar. Eating too much sugar in any form is bad for your health.
If you’re trying to limit your added sugar intake, be sure to check the nutrition labels of the food you eat. Sugar isn’t always listed as sugar in a food’s ingredients list, and many whole foods (fruits and veggies) are surprisingly high in sugar.
Be on the lookout for:
- Agave (or agave nectar)
- Coconut sugar
- Beetroot juice (beets are very high in sugar)
- Fruit juices
- Dates (or date sugar)
- Dried fruits (raisins, cranberries, apricots, etc).
- Dressings and sauces (ketchup, thousand island, BBQ sauce, etc.)
When in doubt, always look at the sugar content on the nutritional label. It will tell you the grams of sugar per serving. If the number is high, you may want to choose an option that isn’t as sweet.
The classic advice for cutting out sugar is to only eat sweet stuff in moderation. However, many people struggle to limit themselves.
Because sugar has addictive potential, eating a bit of it can be like opening the floodgates — a few bites of dessert can start a vicious cycle of bingeing, guilt, shame, and so on.
If you feel like sugar and carbs have a hold on you and you don’t have success with simple moderation, consider trying a ketogenic diet.
The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that’s excellent for breaking sugar dependency. It emphasizes lots of satisfying, high-fat foods like butter, olive oil, steak, bacon, and avocado, plenty of fresh veggies, and very few carbohydrates in any form.
By cutting out almost all carb sources, you don’t give your body a chance to fall back into the loop of carb cravings. If you’re prone to eating too much sugar, keto is a great option.
You can start the ketogenic diet right now with this complete beginner’s guide to keto. It has everything you need to improve your diet, kick sugar cravings, and become a healthier, happier version of yourself.