10 Ways Sugar Harms Your Health
1. Sugar causes blood glucose to spike and plummet.
Unstable blood sugar often leads to mood swings, fatigue, headaches and cravings for more sugar. Cravings set the stage for a cycle of addiction in which every new hit of sugar makes you feel better temporarily but, a few hours later, results in more cravings and hunger. On the flip side, those who avoid sugar often report having little or no cravings for sugary things and feeling emotionally balanced and energized.
2. Sugar increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Large-scale studies have shown that the more high-glycemic foods (those that quickly affect blood sugar), including foods containing sugar, a person consumes, the higher his risk for becoming obese and for developing diabetes and heart disease1. Emerging research is also suggesting connections between high-glycemic diets and many different forms of cancer2,3,4.
3. Sugar interferes with immune function.
Research on human subjects is scant, but animal studies have shown that sugar suppresses immune response5. More research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms; however, we do know that bacteria and yeast feed on sugar and that, when these organisms get out of balance in the body, infections and illness are more likely.
4. A high-sugar diet often results in chromium deficiency.
It's sort of a catch-22. If you consume a lot of sugar and other refined carbohydrates, you probably don't get enough of the trace mineral chromium, and one of chromium's main functions is to help regulate blood sugar. Scientists estimate that 90 percent of Americans don't get enough chromium. Chromium is found in a variety of animal foods, seafood and plant foods. Refining starches and other carbohydrates rob these foods of their chromium supplies.6
5. Sugar accelerates aging.
It even contributes to that telltale sign of aging: sagging skin. Some of the sugar you consume, after hitting your bloodstream, ends up attaching itself to proteins, in a process called glycation. These new molecular structures contribute to the loss of elasticity found in aging body tissues, from your skin to your organs and arteries7. The more sugar circulating in your blood, the faster this damage takes hold.
6. Sugar causes tooth decay.
With all the other life-threatening effects of sugar, we sometimes forget the most basic damage it does. When it sits on your teeth, it creates decay more efficiently than any other food substance8. For a strong visual reminder, next time the Tooth Fairy visits, try the old tooth-in-a-glass-of-Coke experiment—the results will surely convince you that sugar isn't good for your pearly whites.
7. Sugar can cause gum disease, which can lead to heart disease.
Increasing evidence shows that chronic infections, such as those that result from periodontal problems, play a role in the development of coronary artery disease9. The most popular theory is that the connection is related to widespread effects from the body's inflammatory response to infection.
8. Sugar affects behavior and cognition in children.
Though it has been confirmed by millions of parents, most researchers have not been able to show the effect of sugar on children's behavior. A possible problem with the research is that most of it compared the effects of a sugar-sweetened drink to one containing an artificial sweetener10. It may be that kids react to both real sugar and sugar substitutes, therefore showing no differences in behavior.
What about kids' ability to learn? Between 1979 and 1983, 803 New York City public schools reduced the amount of sucrose (table sugar) and eliminated artificial colors, flavors and two preservatives from school lunches and breakfasts. The diet policy changes were followed by a 15.7 percent increase in a national academic ranking (previously, the greatest improvement ever seen had been 1.7 percent)11.
9. Sugar increases stress.
When we're under stress, our stress hormone levels rise; these chemicals are the body's fight-or-flight emergency crew, sent out to prepare the body for an attack or an escape. These chemicals are also called into action when blood sugar is low. For example, after a blood-sugar spike (say, from eating a piece of birthday cake), there's a compensatory dive, which causes the body to release stress hormones such as adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol. One of the main things these hormones do is raise blood sugar, providing the body with a quick energy boost. The problem is, these helpful hormones can make us feel anxious, irritable and shaky.
10. Sugar takes the place of important nutrients.
According to USDA data, people who consume the most sugar have the lowest intakes of essential nutrients––especially vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, vitamin B-12, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and iron. Ironically, those who consume the most sugar are children and teenagers, the individuals who need these nutrients most12.
Now that you know the negative impacts refined sugar can have on your body and mind, you'll want to be more careful about the foods you choose. And the first step is getting educated about where sugar lurks—believe it or not, a food needn't even taste all that sweet for it to be loaded with sugar. When it comes to convenience and packaged foods, let the ingredients label be your guide, and be aware that just because something boasts that it is low in carbs or a “diet" food, doesn't mean it's free of sugar. Atkins products never contain added sugar.
For more information, read Finding Added Sugars.
1. Bell, S.J., Sears, B., “Low-glycemic-load diets: impact on obesity and chronic diseases." Critical Reviews in Food Science & Nutrition, 43(4), 2003, pages 357-77.
2. Michaud, D.S., Liu, S., Giovannucci, E., et al., “Dietary Sugar, Glycemic Load, and Pancreatic Cancer Risk in a Prospective Study." Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 94(17), 2002, pages 1293-1300.
3. Romieu, I., Lazcano-Ponce, E., Sanchez-Zamorano, L.M., et al., “Carbohydrates and the Risk of Breast Cancer Among Mexican Women." Cancer Epidemiology and Biomarkers Preview, 13(8), 2004, pages 1283-1289.
4. Franceschi, S., Dal Maso, L., Augustin, L., et al., “Dietary Glycemic Load and Colorectal Cancer Risk." Annals of Oncology, 12(2), 2001, pages 173-178.
5. Nutter, R.L., Gridley, D.S., Kettering, J.D., et al., “Modification of a transplantable colon tumor and immune responses in mice fed different sources of protein, fat and carbohydrate." Cancer Letters, 18(1), 1983, pages 49-62.
6. “Dietary Reference Intakes for vitamin A, vitamin K, arsenic, boron, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, vanadium, and zinc." Institute of Medicine, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 2001.
7. Sensi, M., Pricci, F., Andreani, D., et al., “Advanced Nonenzymatic Glycation Endproducts (AGE): Their Relevance to Aging and the Pathogenesis of Late Diabetic Complications." Diabetes Research, 16(1), 1991, pages 1-9.
8. "Dental Caries and Its Complications: Tooth Decay." In The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, edited by Robert Berkow, et al. Rahway, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 1992.
9. Geerts, S.O., Legrand, V., Charpentier, J., et al. “Further evidence of the association between periodontal conditions and coronary artery disease." Journal of Periodontology, 75(9), 2004, pages 1274-80.
10. Wolraich, M.L., Wilson, D.B., White, J.W, “The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children. A meta-analysis." JAMA, 274 (20), 1995, pages 1617-21.
11. Schoenthaler, S.J., Doraz, W.E., Wakefield, J.A., “The Impact of a Low Food Additive and Sucrose Diet on Academic Performance in 803 New York City Public Schools." International Journal of Biosocial Research, 8(2), 1986, pages 185-195.
12. Bowman, S.A., “Diets of Individuals Based on Energy Intakes From Added Sugars." Family Economics and Nutrition Review, 12(2), 1999, pages 31-38.