The Sweet and Lowdown
There’s nothing sweet about how much sugar people consume every day. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the average adult in the United States takes in 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, or a whopping 150 pounds a year, while teens pile in 34 teaspoons a day. That’s more than twice the amount of sugar we should be eating.
“The average American is basically overdosing on sugar,” says Connie Bennett, author of Sugar Shock!, who believes that the AHA’s estimates of sugar consumption are conservative, and it’s closer to 50 teaspoons of added sugar a day.
The amount is shocking, and the potential health effects of excess sugar consumption are even scarier. Mounting evidence suggests that flooding your system with the sweet stuff can play a role in obesity, heart disease, and cancer. It can also impact how you look or feel, doing damage to your skin or altering your mood.
Read on for the scoop on six scary effects of sugar. These findings may make you want to curb your sweet tooth for good.
Tossing Back Sugary Drinks May Increase Your Risk of Diabetes
Consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks, fruit drinks, iced tea, and sports drinks, may increase your chances of developing type 2 diabetes. A recent study published in the journal Diabetes Care examined more than 310,000 patients and found that those who drank 1 to 2 servings of the sweet stuff a day were 26% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who drank it once a month or not at all. What’s more, University of California, San Francisco, researchers estimated that 130,000 new cases of diabetes between 1990 and 2000 can be attributed to the increase in Americans’ consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
The reason is twofold: Loading up on sugar-sweetened beverages tends to lead to weight gain, which is a risk factor for diabetes. Previous studies have found that those who toss back high-calorie drinks tend not to cut calories elsewhere from their meals. Second, sugar-loaded drinks deliver a quick rush of sugars to your body, which over time can lead to insulin resistance and inflammation, explains Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of Beat Sugar Addiction Now!
Following a High-Glycemic Diet May Cause AcneWhile dermatologists and other experts have debated whether greasy french fries and chocolate cause breakouts, some truth has been found that backs the old wives’ tale. According to a 2008 study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, what you eat can affect your skin. The study’s Australian researchers measured the effects of high- and low-glycemic diets on the skin of teenage boys. The glycemic index of a food defines how quickly it’s broken down into glucose by the body. High-glycemic foods, such as refined carbs, sugary drinks, and even certain fruits high in natural sugars, cause large spikes in blood sugar when eaten. Low-glycemic foods, such as whole grains, are broken down into sugars more slowly, so they do not cause spikes in blood sugar. The researchers found that those who were on the low-glycemic diet experienced a 50% reduction in acne, while those who ate the high-glycemic diet experienced a 14% increase. Researchers speculate that insulin resistance—commonly associated with eating a high-glycemic diet—may fuel inflammation and the production of the acne-causing oil sebum..
A Diet Rich in Sugar Can Hurt Your Heart
Eating an excessive amount of fat isn’t the only thing that increases your risk of heart disease. Mounting evidence suggests that sugar plays a direct role on the health of your ticker. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who took in more than 17.5% of their calories from added sugars were 20 to 30% more likely to have high levels of triglycerides, a type of fat that’s found in your blood. When you consume more sugar than you need for energy, the excess sugars form triglycerides, which are then stored in fat cells.
The same study found that people who got 25% or more of their calories from added sugars were more than 3 times more likely to have low levels of HDL (the good cholesterol that helps prevent plaque buildup by carrying cholesterol from your arteries to your liver where it is then excreted) than those whose diets included less than 5% sugar. Both high triglycerides and low HDL levels contribute to atherosclerosis—the hardening of your arteries—a condition that increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and heart attack.
The case against sugar is so compelling that, in 2009, the AHA released guidelines suggesting people limit intake. Women should eat less than 6 teaspoons a day; men are to keep their intake to 9 teaspoons.
Sugar Can Increase Your Chances of Depression
Eating sugar and carbs can give you a temporary mood boost—it triggers your body to release the feel-good hormone serotonin—but overloading your system with sugar seems to have the reverse effect, says Teitelbaum. In fact, researchers from Baylor College of Medicine found a correlation between sugar consumption and the annual rate of depression in six countries. While the exact mechanism that triggers excess sugar to negatively affect your mood is unknown, some believe that insulin resistance may force the release of the stress hormones cortisol and GLP-1.
Moreover, research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that people who were diagnosed with schizophrenia and ate a sugar-heavy diet were more likely to be hospitalized in a 2-year follow-up period. “Behavioral disorders, in general, are affected by massive swings in sugar,” says Teitelbaum. “When you eat a lot of sugar, your blood sugar levels shoot way up and then go way low. These fluctuations drive your metabolism and mood nuts. And when someone is schizophrenic, he already has a hair-trigger.”
High Blood Sugar Can Increase Your Risk of Yeast InfectionYeast grows by feeding on sugar, so if you drink a 48-ounce Big Gulp every day, your body is going to be a fermentation tank, says Teitelbaum. Yeast infections—both down there and in your mouth (also known as oral thrush)—are typically caused by an overgrowth of the bacteria Candida. These bacteria exist naturally in your body, but are usually held in check by your immune system. However, when your blood sugar is particularly high, the extra sugars in your saliva and urine provide a perfect breeding ground for the bacteria.
Sugar May Increase Your Risk of Cancer
“The sugar-cancer connection is compelling and scary,” says Bennett, pointing to in vitro studies that show cancer cells feed on sugar to fuel their growth and proliferation. “Researchers call them ‘glucose guzzlers.’” While it’s not proven that sugar fuels cancer growth in the body, we do know that obesity—a likely effect of eating too much sugar—increases your risk of developing a number of cancers and that both sugar and insulin fuel cancer-cell growth.
A number of studies indicate a strong relationship between sugar consumption and an increased risk of cancer. For instance, University of Minnesota researchers looked at more than 60,000 patients over 14 years and found that people who drank two or more soft drinks a week had an 87% higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer. University of Buffalo researchers found that diabetic women had a 39% increased risk of developing breast cancer over those with a fasting glucose level below 100 mg/dl. That is, women with the highest blood sugar levels were much more likely to have breast cancer than those with the lowest levels.