Facts About the Impact of Sugar on Health

Facts About the Impact of Sugar on Health

Sugar is a commonly consumed food ingredient that is found naturally in some foods like fruits and dairy and added to many processed foods and drinks. While sugar can improve the palatability of foods and provide a quick source of energy, there is growing concern about the health impacts of excessive sugar consumption. This article explores some key facts about how sugar affects the body and overall health.

The Different Types of Sugars

Sugars are a type of carbohydrate and the main sweetening agents used in foods. There are different types of sugars:

  • Table sugar (sucrose): This is refined from either sugar cane or sugar beets and is most commonly used to sweeten foods and drinks. It is made up of two simpler sugars – glucose and fructose.
  • High fructose corn syrup: This is a liquid sweetener made from corn starch which consists of a mix of fructose and glucose. It is commonly used in processed foods and drinks.
  • Fruit sugar (fructose): This simple sugar is found naturally in fruits and honey. While it is fine in moderation, excess fructose consumption has been linked to negative health effects.
  • Lactose: This is the naturally occurring sugar found in dairy products like milk. People with lactose intolerance lack the enzyme needed to properly digest it.
  • Added sugars: These refer to any sugars added during food processing or preparation. They can include table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, and syrups.

How Sugar Impacts Hormones and Metabolism

Sugar affects the body in several ways, primarily by influencing hormones and metabolism. Here are some of the facts:

  • Sugar causes a rapid spike in blood glucose and stimulates insulin release. Insulin is the hormone that allows cells to absorb and use glucose from the bloodstream.
  • High sugar diets can lead to insulin resistance over time, where the body requires more and more insulin to maintain normal blood sugars. This increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Fructose is metabolized differently than glucose and does not stimulate insulin release in the same way. However it may increase insulin resistance.
  • Sugar triggers the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathways. This can lead to addictive-like eating behaviors.
  • Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates hunger. Sugar consumption causes ghrelin levels to drop briefly, leading to increased hunger and overeating later on.
  • Cortisol is a hormone involved in energy regulation and stress. Chronic high sugar intake may lead to elevated cortisol levels.
  • Sugar causes inflammation, which can negatively impact appetite regulation.

The Impact on Weight and Obesity Risk

Excessive sugar intake is a major contributor to obesity in both children and adults. Here are some facts on how sugar consumption impacts weight:

  • Sugary drinks like soda are associated with weight gain and obesity in adults and children. They add “empty” calories and do not trigger feelings of fullness like solid foods.
  • People who consume more added sugars tend to have higher calorie intakes and poorer dietary quality overall.
  • Fructose does not stimulate satiety hormones in the same way as glucose. This can lead to increased calorie intake.
  • Sugar impacts appetite control hormones leading people to eat more calories overall.
  • Just one sugary soda a day increases the risk of obesity in children by 60% according to a large study.
  • The brain’s reward pathways light up when people consume sugar, reinforcing addictive-like eating habits. This makes sugar difficult to resist.
  • Sugar laden processed snacks are convenient and hyper-palatable which increases mindless overeating.
  • Studies show people do not fully compensate for liquid calories from sugary beverages at meals and end up consuming extra calories overall.

Impact on Dental Health

Sugar is also a major contributor to dental cavities and tooth decay:

  • When bacteria in the mouth break down sugar, acid is produced which erodes and damages tooth enamel.
  • People who frequently consume sugary foods and drinks have a higher prevalence of dental cavities, especially in children.
  • Sticky candies and dried fruits can adhere to teeth and expose them to sugars for longer periods.
  • Sugary beverages like soda, sports drinks, and sweetened coffees wash over the teeth bathing them in sugars.
  • Even 100% fruit juices contain sugars that can harm teeth due to the acidic nature of the beverage.
  • Sugary foods impact dental health more when eaten as between-meal snacks than during meals.
  • Brushing immediately after consuming sugary foods can help protect teeth from some damage.

The Link to Liver Disease and Heart Health

Excess sugar intake is associated with an increased risk of fatty liver disease and cardiovascular disease:

  • Fructose provides large amounts of liver fat which contributes to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This disorder affects up to 25% of people globally.
  • Added sugars contribute to dyslipidemia – abnormal blood fat levels that increase the risk for heart disease.
  • People who consumed over 10% of calories from added sugar had a 30% greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
  • Eating foods high on the glycemic index (which raise blood sugars quickly) is associated with increased risk of heart attacks.
  • There is evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverage consumption to elevated blood pressure which can damage arteries.
  • The recommended daily sugar intake for optimal heart health is between 5-6% of total calories. Most Americans far exceed this limit.
  • Excess sugar consumption leads to inflammation which damages blood vessels and increases plaque buildup.
  • High sugar diets are associated with abnormal triglyceride levels and lower levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.

The Brain and Mental Health Impacts

Emerging research suggests sugar may negatively impact the aging brain and contribute to depression:

  • Diets high in added sugars are associated with poorer scores on cognitive tests in middle and older aged adults.
  • One study found people with high sugar intake had a 53% increased risk of mild cognitive impairment progressing to dementia over 10 years.
  • Sugar intake spikes blood glucose levels which can damage blood vessels in the brain and impair cognition.
  • There are links between high sugar consumption, impaired structure and function of brain regions involved in memory and learning.
  • Rats fed high sugar diets show abnormalities in brain synapses and impaired spatial learning and memory function.
  • Sugar has an impact on neurotransmitters like serotonin implicated in depression. High sugar consumers may have a higher depression risk.
  • The brain’s reward pathways light up when people consume sugar which can lead to addiction and poorer emotional wellbeing.

Reducing Your Sugar Intake

Here are some tips to help reduce your daily sugar intake:

  • Check labels and choose foods low in added sugars. Look for ingredients like cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, and fruit juice concentrate.
  • Buy unsweetened varieties of foods like yogurt, oatmeal, and nut butters and use fresh fruit or small amounts of honey to sweeten.
  • Avoid sugary coffee, tea, and other beverage options and go for water or unsweetened options instead.
  • Portion out sugary desserts instead of eating directly from the package. Share desserts when dining out.
  • Skip the sugary cocktails and sodas and swap for sparkling water with fruit or herbal tea.
  • Limit yourself to one small sugary treat per day to prevent excess consumption.
  • Experiment with less processed sweeteners like monk fruit or erythritol instead of refined sugar.
  • Consume fresh fruits rather than juices to get fiber and nutrients along with natural sugars.

Conclusion

Current research clearly demonstrates that excess sugar intake negatively impacts hormones, metabolism, weight, dental health, liver function, heart health, and even brain function. By paying attention to added sugar amounts in packaged foods and reducing sugary beverage intake, you can improve your dietary quality and reduce the risks to your health. Small amounts of naturally occurring sugars from whole foods like fruits are perfectly healthy for most people.

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