“Many people have a love affair with sugar, and it is easy to see why: It gives us a quick energy and mood boost,” says Sara Vance, a nutritionist in San Diego and founder of Rebalance Life. “But, the downside is that the high is followed by a crash, and that is when we reach for more sugar, which then creates a dangerous cycle that I call the sugar roller coaster. It is no surprise that people can feel ‘out of control’ around sweets.”
The news with sugar isn’t all bad. As with all food, sugar has a major impact on the chemicals in the body, some of which can be good for you. “When we eat something sweet, the pancreas releases insulin to deliver the glucose to the cells and in doing so, it provides our cells with fuel.” says Vance. This results in that initial burst of energy, and your mood is elevated because that sugar delivers serotonin to the brain.
“When our insulin is working right, it also lowers the elevated sugar levels in the blood. However, many people are eating too many sweets, and doing this too often, which can, over time, create a condition called insulin resistance, where the body is no longer able to as effectively deliver the fuel to the cells, nor lower the levels of sugar in the blood,” she says. “This is unfortunately becoming more of a common problem, which in addition to stubborn weight gain, can lead to diabetes and increased risk of other diseases.”
Because the health effects of sugar are quite serious, we asked experts to weigh in on everything from what happens in the body after a sugar free-for-all to how to identify sugar in all of its various forms. Read on for the straight-up sugar facts. Your sweet tooth is so not gonna like this…
Myth: Sugar Is Easy To Identify On Food Labels
There are more kinds of sugar than there are Kardashians — 35, give or take, ranging from natural to processed. The most common kind is classic white granulated sugar, which comes from sugar cane or the sugar beet. “Sugar beets are one of the top ten GMO foods, so I always recommend that people buy organic sugar if they are using the granulated kind,” explains Vance.
What you might see listed on the package: agave, brown rice syrup, brown sugar, cane sugar, caramel, corn sweetener, corn syrup, fructose, malt syrup, rice syrup, turbinado, molasses, high fructose corn sweetener, and the list goes on and on. Experts say that regardless of which of the above is laced in food, sugar is sugar. So, you want to be aware of how much and how often the foods you are eating have any of the above. Here’s the full list of names that sugar can take on.
Myth: It’s Just Sugar — How Much Damage Could It Really Do?
What diseases could possibly come from eating too much sugar, you ask? It’s not like you’re reaching for pack of Marlboros, right? Well, turns out, sugar can cause way more harm to your health than you might think. Excessive sugar can have a wide range of ways of putting your body and your health in jeopardy.
“When sugar enters the body, it causes insulin to be alerted. When insulin is present, the body goes into fat storage mode,” says Vance. “Once extra fat gets stored, triglycerides increase, making you more prone to heart disease-related issues. Sugar is also inflammatory, and inflammation in the body is associated with an elevated risk of heart disease, cancer, and more.”
There’s also a link to decreasing your ability to fight off disease. “Excess insulin also inhibits the release of human growth hormone, so eating sugar depresses the immune system, making us less equipped to fight off infections and viruses,” says Vance. The possible downside to excessively satisfying your sweet tooth over time?
Heart disease and stroke: “Studies show that excess sugar consumption increases our risk of heart attack and stroke,” says Vance. “Consuming one regular soda a day can increase heart disease risk factors by 20 percent.” But, don’t grab a diet soda just yet — drinking diet soda regularly is linked to weight gain and a 44 percent increase risk of heart disease.
Insulin resistance and diabetes: “When we spike our blood sugar over and over, our body eventually becomes less effective at lowering it,” says Vance. “This can lead to a problem called insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. Insulin resistance makes our body slower to process sugar, and prevents the cells from using the glucose, which means that sugar hangs around longer in the blood stream. So, the cells are not getting the energy they need, the sugar gets stored as fat, and heart attack risk goes up.”
Cancer: “Sugar is a cancer cell’s favorite food,” says Vance. “Recent research shows that high insulin levels increase the proliferation of cancer cells, while malignant cells die when starved of glucose.”
Alzheimer’s: “There is even some emerging evidence that excess sugar can be damaging to our brains, creating what is often referred to as Type 3 Diabetes, and includes symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s,” says Vance.
Myth: Sweeteners Are The Best Sugar Solution
They go by names like aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, and acesulfame potassium. They’re found in a ton of foods and drinks from diet sodas to frozen yogurt and gum, and while they may cut the calorie count significantly, artificial sugars don’t solve your sugar addiction. “Artificial sweeteners, even though not caloric, still trigger your body to think that sugar is being consumed. Starting the cycle that will lead to weight gain, obesity, diabetes and more,” says Brooke Alpert, R.D., a registered dietitian in NYC, founder of B Nutritious and author of The Sugar Detox. “Even worse, artificial sweeteners are so overly sweet that they confuse your palate, causing you to no longer be able to identify what a healthy dose of regular sweetness tastes like.”
Some natural alternative sweeteners seemed promising health-wise — such as stevia — but recent headlines suggest that some brands might not be as natural as they say. A lawsuit against Cargill, the maker of Truvia, claims that it is made with synthetic and chemically processed ingredients. (Stay tuned to see what happens with that case.)
While some experts, like Vance, think that using 100 percent natural alternative sweeteners — such as stevia or lo han quo (monk fruit) — is okay in small amounts, she recommends avoiding the brands that have been more processed until more research is conducted. However, Alpert is against any sweetener from the get-go. “We shouldn’t need for things to be so incredibly sweet,” she says. “It can make you numb to sweetness, causing you to need more and more sugar or sugar substitutes for something to taste sweet. Even worse, the body doesn’t know if you’re consuming real or fake sugar and, regardless, goes into fat storing mode when sweeteners are consumed.”
As for the idea that because it’s natural sugar, it’s easier for your body to break down than the fake stuff: “In all my research, I never found that there is a difference in the way or time frame of the breakdown between natural and artificial sugar,” says Alpert. So there’s that, at least.
Myth: There’s No Need To Worry About Sugars From Fruit
Some experts say almost completely cutting all sugars out of your diet is the way to go. “Sugar, whether it’s from organic sources like natural honey, or the simple granulated table sugar, can have a negative effect on your health,” says Alpert. “The body reacts to sugar the same way regardless of the kind, so in truth, there really isn’t a better option of sugar to prevent health problems — other than simply reducing the amount of sugar you consume.”
Alpert recommends managing fruit portion size and kind — opt for lower sugar fruits over higher ones like pineapple and banana. “By removing sugar from your diet entirely for a short period, then reintroducing some fruit — starting with an apple, then gradually over the course of four weeks, and increasing the amount to two servings a day — you relearn what is truly sweet and how much sugar you truly crave.” One word of caution: Alpert says sugar detoxing and caffeine withdrawals are similar, but sugar is much stronger. So, be prepared for some wicked headaches and moodiness if you decide to cut it out.
Some high-sugar fruits you want to limit the quantity of on a daily basis: watermelon, bananas, and pineapple. Your better bets are apples, berries, and citrus fruits, says Alpert.
Vance does point out that there is a distinction between added sugars and those that are naturally occurring — such as in fruit. “Added sugars are put in during manufacturing, which means you have no control over the amount and type used,” she explains. “Often in processed foods, it will be high fructose corn syrup, which I recommend everyone avoid whenever possible. Or, it can be added by individuals such as the sugar we stir into our coffee, or honey we stir into our tea.”
Then there’s the fact that fruit has other healthy benefits. “Naturally-occurring sugars — such as that found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy — tend to also have fiber or protein, which will slow the glycemic response, keeping our blood sugar more level, and filling you up more,” explains Vance. “But, people with insulin resistance might want to be careful about choosing natural sugars. Picking lower glycemic fruits such as berries is a better choice for them than, say, melon.”
Myth: It Is Impossible To Cut Sugar Out Of Your Diet
“If there is one thing that we can do that can do to vastly improve our health, it would be giving up or seriously cutting back on sweets,” says Vance. And, there is a ton of research as to why. “Sugar has been shown to stimulate our appetite and cause oxidation in cells, which leads to premature aging,” explains Vance, who says she tells clients to go on a “sugar vacation” for short bursts of time. “The less we eat of it, the less we need to satisfy our sweet tooth, and the more effective our insulin response will be.”
“Often, we get stuck on the sugar rollercoaster because we are not eating enough fat, fiber, or protein to keep our blood sugar more level, making sure to include one of the above at each meal or snack can really help get rid of cravings,” she explains. Her magic bullet for leveling out blood sugar: chia seeds. “Just add one to two tablespoons of chia to your morning smoothie,” she says. “Chia seeds are amazing — they are very hydrophilic, which means they soak up a lot of water (about 10 times their own weight in water), creating a gel,” she says. “This gel helps to keep people hydrated, but it also serves to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, keeping blood sugar more stable. It is also offers all three of the things that help to keep our blood sugar down — protein, fiber, and fat.”
The bottom line: While sugar isn’t going to straight-up kill you, it’s definitely not doing you any favors. So, eat processed sugar (like candy and ice cream) in moderation and reach for a healthy amount of fruits throughout the day that aren’t all super-sweet. Oh, and cut out the diet drinks ASAP.
Photographed by Christy Kurtz
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