It is hard to resist the instant gratification of a sweet tooth when all kinds of sweet temptations are readily available. Unfortunately, too much of a good (sweet) thing can be bad for the body’s chemistry. Harvard Medical School talks about “the sweet danger of sugar” when referring to the many negative effects that sugar has on the body.
What happens when you eat sugar?
Metabolism is the process by which the latent energy in the foods we eat (with the major macronutrients being carbohydrates, protein and fats) is converted into fuel for the cells in the body. Table sugar is a carbohydrate and is broken down in the gut into glucose and fructose. Glucose is useful, as the cells in the body use glucose for energy.
Glucose and fructose are metabolised differently, therefore excess amounts have different effects on the body. Glucose is absorbed from the gut into the blood stream and transporter to the cells in the body, where with the help of Insulin (a hormone produced by the pancreas), glucose can enter the calls and be converted to energy.
What is the sweet danger of sugar?
For optimal functioning, the body needs blood glucose levels to remain at a fairly constant level. A diet rich in simple sugars and refined carbohydrates allows for very rapid digestion and absorption. A rapid rise in blood glucose results in a rapid rise in blood insulin levels. Over time such regular spikes in glucose and insulin levels can cause cells to become resistant to insulin’s command and role in controlling and maintaining constant blood glucose levels, which will have an overall effect on body metabolism. This implies that blood sugar levels are often higher than normal for longer periods, thus over time, increasing the risk for diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
When insulin resistance develops, the pancreas is required to produce more insulin as the cells in the body are no longer as sensitive to this hormone. Over time the excess production of insulin can cause fatigue of the overworking pancreas, which then stops being able to secrete adequate amounts of insulin. This can finally lead to full blown type 2 diabetes.
Without insulin, glucose cannot enter the cells and thus builds up in the blood stream, where the high blood glucose levels, through a process of glycation or attachment of free glucose to proteins, can damage blood vessels, organs and nerves over the long term.
Other effects of high blood sugar levels on your health:
Apart from spiking your insulin levels as discussed above, too much sugar can have devastating effects on your health.
• Cell aging occurs due to the sugar and insulin spikes, which can shorten your lifespan.
• High blood sugar levels lead the way to type 2 diabetes.
• Sugar that is not used for energy, is stored as fat in the body, leading to weight gain and obesity. The more sugar you eat, the more you’ll weigh!
• A high intake of sugar has been associated with high blood pressure and an increase in the risk for heart disease. According to Harvard Medical School, the higher the intake of added sugar, the higher the risk for heart disease.
• The extra insulin in the bloodstream that results from an abundance of sugar can affect the arteries, adding stress to the heart.
• Sugar can be as addictive as nicotine and caffeine, which leads to cravings for sugary food and drinks. Eating sugar gives the brain a surge of a feel-good chemical called dopamine.
• A high sugar consumption cause inflammation in the body, which can, amongst other effects, worsen joint pain and increase the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
• A diet high in sugar means the body does not get enough real nutrients, which leaves you still hungry, ending up with eating more calories overall.
• As fructose gets metabolized in the liver, large amounts of fructose are converted into fat in the liver, which can lead to all sorts of serious problems, such as high cholesterol and fatty liver disease – a contributor to diabetes. (Remember sugar is broken down in the gut into glucose and fructose.)
• Studies have shown that eating too much sugar could worsen mood and make depression worse.
• Chronically high levels of sugar in the bloodstream affects the circulatory system and can make men impotent.
• Fructose and sucrose can wipe out beneficial bacteria in the colon.
• Oral bacteria thrive on sugar and release acid as a byproduct, which causes tooth decay!
Sugar by any other name:
High levels of sugar in the diet is not always easy to identify, as it is hidden in food labels under a wide variety of names. Perceived healthier options such as brown sugar, honey or molasses still contain high amounts of sugar. Some of the most common indicators of hidden sugar are:
• Syrup sugar molecules ending with ‘ose”, such as sucrose, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose.
• Corn sweetener
• Corn syrup
• High-fructose corn syrup
• Malt sugar
• Cane sugar or juice
• Fruit juice or concentrate
• Grape sugar
• Golden syrup
• Yellow sugar.
How much sugar should you eat?
The American Heart Foundation recommends not more than 9 teaspoons (38 grams) of added sugar per day for men, 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for women and 3-6 teaspoons (12 – 25 grams) for children, depending on age.
Re-programme your sweet tooth:
Your sweet tooth can gradually be weaned from the sweet danger of added sugar in processed foods and sugary beverages, by cutting down on the daily consumption and by introducing healthy alternatives. For example, gradually reduce the amount of sugar in your coffee or tea until you drink them unsweetened – even if it takes months to achieve. Water is free with zero calories and can be tasty with slices of lemon, or mint and cucumber. The sugar that is naturally found in fresh fruit and vegetables has little effect on blood sugar and these foods also contain fibre, vitamins and minerals. Always look for hidden sugar in the list of ingredients on food labels.
Over time your palate will adjust and you’ll find the things that you used to eat and drink are now far too sweet and no longer enjoyable!
Perhaps it’s time to call your sweet tooth to order.
How to break the sugar habit and help your health in the process. Published July 2013. Harvard Women’s Health Watch. Harvard Medical School. (www.health.harvard.edu)
The sweet danger of sugar. Published May 2017 and updated 5 November 2019. Harvard Medical School. (www.health.harvard.edu)
How does too much sugar affect your body? Published 23 March 2017. WebMD. (www.webmd.com)
Negative impact of sugar on the brain. Published 19 October 2019. Verywellmind. (www.verywellmind.com)
Simple sugars wipe out beneficial gut bugs. Published 27 December 2018. Scientific American. (www.scientificamerican.com)
How the body metabolizes sugar. Published online. Sugars Science. University of California. San Francisco. (www.sugarscience.ucsf.edu)
Hidden in plain sight. Added sugar is hiding in 74% of packaged foods. Published online. Sugars Science. University of California. San Francisco. (www.sugarscience.ucsf.edu)
How to recognize and manage a blood sugar spike. Published 20 August 2018. Healthline. (www.healthline.com)
11 Things sugar does to your body. Published 21 November 2019. The Healthy. (www.thehealthy.com)