The Impact of Sugar on the Body

This week (January 18-24) is Sugar Awareness Week.  We thought this was a perfect opportunity to explore all the negative ways that sugar can affect your body and your health.

What is sugar, anyway?  It’s actually more of a generic name for a number of different sweet, soluble carbohydrates found in many foods and drinks.  It can go by a lot of different names like sucrose or fructose.  This makes it easier to disguise in foods.  These added sugars are high in calories, but have zero essential nutrients.  Zero!  No proteins, no essential fats, no vitamins or minerals . . . just pure energy.  In other words, empty calories.

Diabetics typically have to watch the amount of sugar they consume daily, but with the number of serious problems that sugar can cause to your body, we all should.  Here are just a few ways in which sugar can negatively impact your health:

 

  1. Brain – Sugar has huge effects on a person’s brain. Sugar, much like many street drugs, releases chemicals that set off the brain’s pleasure center, like dopamine.  And just like street drugs, you can develop a tolerance for sugar, meaning that you’ll crave more sugar in order for your brain to get its “fix”.  Chemical FormulasEssentially, the difference is the nitrogen atom present in cocaine, but missing from sugar.  Further, the large releases in dopamine, create true addiction in many people.  Sugar also works against the part of the brain that makes you feel full, convincing you to take in more calories leading to other health issues.
  2. Face – Not nearly as serious as the effect on the brain, but still something to think about is your face. When a body has sugar in the bloodstream, the sugar will attach to proteins forming harmful molecules.  These molecules attack nearby proteins, damaging them.  Some of these key proteins are collagen and elastin, the components keeping your skin firm and elastic.  Over time, too much sugar leads to wrinkles and saggy skin.
  3. Teeth – This one seems to be the most obvious thing that people tend to think about, and it is definitely a real concern. Sugar is the most damaging substance for teeth that we’re eating.  When sugar sits on your teeth, it creates decay more efficiently than any other food.  This is because it provides easily digestible energy for all the bad bacteria living in your mouth.
  4. Heart – Have you ever thought about how sugar can affect your heart? Probably not, but it is a very real concern.  We know that diabetes is directly affected by one’s sugar intake, but heart disease and diabetes are intertwined.  Among people with type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke are the number one cause of death.
  5. Liver – Added sugars trigger your liver to store fat more efficiently. Over time, a diet high in sugar leads to a fat buildup around your liver, or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.  Studies show that people with fatty livers consume up to 2-3 times as much sugar as an average person.
  6. Pancreas – Insulin, which is made in the pancreas, is very important to the body. It allows sugar to enter the cells from the bloodstream and tells the cells to start burning sugar instead of fat.  Too much sugar in the blood is highly toxic, so the ability of insulin to regulate blood sugar is very important.  Too much sugar can cause the cells to become resistant to insulin.  When cells become resistant to insulin, the pancreas is geared up to make more insulin.  Eventually, the pancreas isn’t able to keep up with the demand.  Without enough insulin, blood sugar can reach dangerous levels.
  7. Blood Vessels – Excess insulin in the bloodstream can also take a toll on arteries. High insulin can lead to tense artery walls, leading to high blood pressure.  Ultimately, this makes stroke and heart attack more likely.
  8. Aging – Most people want to slow the aging process, but did you now that a high sugar intake can lead to faster aging. As stated previously about the face, we know that sugar in the bloodstream attaches to proteins and forms harmful molecules that attack components such as collagen and elastin.  But, this loss of elasticity can prematurely age all the body tissues, from skin, to organs, to arteries.  The more sugar in your blood, the faster the damage occurs.
  9. Cancer – Cancer is the uncontrolled growth and multiplication of cells. Because insulin is a key hormone in regulating this growth, many scientists believe that elevated insulin levels (as we’ve already seen, a consequence of high sugar consumption) can contribute to cancer.
  10. Obesity – We’ve already seen how sugar is just empty calories, and also how it leads to cravings of more sugar and more food in general due to its ability to make you feel hungrier. It’s not difficult to see how a diet high in sugar can lead to obesity.
  11. Stress – When we’re stressed, our stress hormones rise. These chemicals prepare the body for attack or escape, etc.  These very same stress hormones are released when the blood sugar is low.  After a blood sugar spike and compensatory dive, the body releases these stress hormones, leading one to feel anxious, irritable and shaky.
  12. Immune System – The body is made up of trillions of good bacteria, which help digest food, produce vitamins and protect the body from germs and diseases. But, consuming too much sugar can alter the balance between good and bad bacteria weakening immune systems.

The damage sugar does to your body is real.  But, since cutting out sugar altogether is very difficult, what can be done to decrease sugar intakes?  Here are a few tips;

  1. Cut down on sugary beverages – Sodas, juices (even 100% juice), sport drinks and smoothies all contain high amounts of sugar.  To start with, drink a glass of water before everything else.  You may find you are no longer thirsty!
  2. Read labels – Sometimes sugar is hidden in foods you wouldn’t think contain sugar like oatmeal, salad dressing, yogurt and processed foods.  Watch for high fructose corn syrup.
  3. Be leery of healthy alternatives – Phrases like “sugar free”, “low calorie” and “all natural” can be misleading. These phrases don’t necessarily mean the food is healthier.
  4. Make the change gradual – Remember how sugar is addictive.  Don’t change your eating habits overnight, but make a gradual change towards a low sugar diet.  The slow change will be easier on your body, especially if your sugar addiction is real.

Sugar** Disclaimer – Not to take the place of medical advice.  Always consult with your doctor about health concerns.

*** Sources: prevention.com; atkins.com; authoritynutrition.com

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