Sugary drinks, candy, baked goods, and sweetened dairy are the main sources of added sugar. But even savory foods, like breads, tomato sauce, and protein bars, can have sugar, making it all too easy to end up with a surplus of the sweet stuff. To complicate it further, added sugars can be hard to spot on nutrition labels since they can be listed under a number of names, such as corn syrup, agave nectar, palm sugar, cane juice, or sucrose. (See more names for sugar on the graphic below.)
No matter what it’s called, sugar is sugar, and in excess, it can negatively affect your body in many ways. Here’s a closer look at how sugar can mess with your health, from head to toe.
Eating sugar gives your brain a huge surge of a feel-good chemical called dopamine. That explains why you’re more likely to crave a candy bar at 3 p.m. than an apple or a carrot.
Because whole foods like fruits and veggies don’t cause the brain to release as much dopamine, your brain starts to need more and more sugar to get that same feeling of pleasure. This causes those “gotta-have-it” feelings for your after-dinner ice cream that are so hard to tame.
The occasional candy or cookie can give you a quick burst of energy (or “sugar high”) by raising your blood sugar levels fast. When your levels drop as your cells absorb the sugar, you may feel jittery and anxious (a.k.a. the dreaded “sugar crash”).
But if you’re reaching into the candy jar too often, sugar starts to have an effect on your mood beyond that 3 p.m. slump: Studies have linked a high sugar intake to a greater risk of depression in adults.
You probably rolled your eyes at age 12, but your parents were right: candy can rot your teeth. Bacteria that cause cavities love to eat sugar lingering in your mouth after you eat something sweet.
If you have joint pain, here’s more reason to lay off the candy: Eating lots of sweets has been shown to worsen joint pain because of the inflammation they cause in the body. Plus, studies show that eating or drinking sugar can raise your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
Another side effect of inflammation is that it may make your skin age faster.
Excess sugar attaches to proteins in your bloodstream and creates harmful molecules called “AGEs,” or advanced glycation end products. These molecules do exactly what they sound like they do: age your skin. They have been shown to damage collagen and elastin in your skin — protein fibers that keep your skin firm and youthful. The result? Wrinkles and saggy skin.
An abundance of added sugar likely contains fructose or high fructose corn syrup. Fructose is process in the liver and in large amounts can damage the liver. When fructose is broken down in the liver it is transformed into fat. In turn this causes:
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD): This is seen as excess fat build-up in the liver.
- Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH): is a fatty liver, inflammation and “steatosis,” which is scarring of the liver. Scarring eventually cuts off blood supply to the liver. Many of these develop into cirrhosis and will need a liver transplant.
When you eat or drink too much sugar, the extra insulin in your bloodstream can affect your arteries all over your body. It causes their walls to get inflamed, grow thicker than normal and more stiff, this stresses your heart and damages it over time. This can lead to heart disease, like heart failure, heart attacks, and strokes.
Research also suggests that eating less sugar can help lower blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease. Plus, people who eat a lot of added sugar (where at least 25% of their calories comes from added sugar) are twice as likely to die of heart disease as those whose diets include less than 10% of total calories from added sugar.
When you eat, your pancreas pumps out insulin. But if you’re eating way too much sugar and your body stops responding properly to insulin, your pancreas starts pumping out even more insulin. Eventually, your overworked pancreas will break down and your blood sugar levels will rise, setting you up for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
If you have diabetes, too much sugar can lead to kidney damage. The kidneys play an important role in filtering your blood. Once blood sugar levels reach a certain amount, the kidneys start to release excess sugar into your urine. If left uncontrolled, diabetes can damage the kidneys, which prevents them from doing their job in filtering out waste in your blood. This can lead to kidney failure.
Your Body Weight
This probably isn’t news to you, but the more sugar you eat, the more you’ll weigh. Research shows that people who drink sugar-sweetened beverages tend to weigh more — and be at higher risk for type 2 diabetes — than those who don’t. One study even found that people who added more sugar to their diet gained about 1.7 pounds in less than 2 months. Excess amounts of sugar can inflame fat cells causing them to release chemicals that increase weight.
Your Sexual Health
If you’re a man, you may want to skip the dessert on date night. Sugar may impact the chain of events needed for an erection.
It affects your circulatory system, which controls the blood flow throughout your body and needs to be working properly to get and keep an erection.