In the United States, the average person consumes 42.5 teaspoons of sugar per day – that’s several times the six to nine teaspoons recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA). According to Dr. Mark Drucker, medical director of the Center for Advanced Medicine, consuming too much sugar is one of the most damaging, yet seemingly innocent, eating habits.
“The medical literature is very clear — excess sugar consumption creates significant health problems,” Drucker tells Simplemost.
Here are some common signs you’re eating too much sugar.
What Is Sugar?
First, a quick look at sugar itself. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that the body converts into glucose and uses for energy. But when talking about the effects of sugar on health, it’s important to make a distinction between natural and refined sugars. Natural sugars are found in fruit (as fructose) and milk, cheese and other dairy products (as lactose). On the other hand, refined sugar (sucrose) comes from sugar cane or sugar beets and is extracted during processing.
What Are Natural Sugars?
Fruits and dairy products contain essential nutrients to keep the body healthy and help and prevent illness. These natural sources of sugar are digested slower and help keep metabolism stable. They also help you feel full for longer.
What Are Refined Sugars?
Refined sugar is added to a wide range of packaged foods, like soda, condiments, candy, cakes and breakfast cereals. Many of these foods have little to no nutritional value. The body digests refined sugar very quickly and it doesn’t make you feel full.
How Much Sugar Is Too Much?
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the main sources of added sugars are soda, candy, cakes, cookies, pies, grains like cinnamon toast, dairy desserts like ice cream and sweetened yogurts, and fruit drinks like fruit punch. The AHA advises that women get no more than 100 calories per day from added sugars – this works out at about six teaspoons. For men, the recommendation is 150 calories per day, or about nine teaspoons.
A diet high in refined sugar has been shown to accelerate skin aging. Too much sugar reacts with proteins in the bloodstream and creates advanced glycation endproducts, which interfere with the skin’s collagen and elastin supply. In 2014, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that sugar accelerates the body’s aging process as much as smoking does.
Inflammation In The Body
Sugar consumption has been linked to increased inflammation in the body.
“Inflammation can damage vessels and arteries and ultimately can be one of the causes of heart disease,” says Silvia Carli, a registered dietitian and expert at health platform 1AND1 Life. Other inflammatory conditions, such as psoriasis and fibromyalgia, may also be exacerbated by excessive sugar intake.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 found that just one to two cans of sugar-sweetened soda per day led to a marked increase in inflammation.
When you consume sugar, your pancreas releases insulin. But it’s only temporary. When insulin levels fall again after a couple of hours, you’re likely to be hungry again.
“You want more sugar and other carbs that turn into sugar, and the cycle repeats,” says Dr. Rameck Hunt, who is board-certified in both internal medicine and obesity medicine and a clinical researcher on obesity.
Lack Of Energy
If you feel sluggish throughout the day on a high-sugar diet, it’s because sugar causes an initial insulin spike, followed by a crash. When your blood sugar is stable, your energy is stable, but when your blood sugar is up and down, so are your energy levels. Several studies have also shown that eating sugar can dampen the activity of orexin cells — neuropeptides in the brain that control various things, including sleepiness. This explains why the urge to nap after a particularly carb-heavy lunch is so common.
A high-sugar diet can lead to a bulging belly. Your gut is full of bacteria, both “good” and “bad.” The bad bacteria consumes the sugars in foods, which leads to the production of gases. This can cause pain after eating, flatulence and bloating.
Weakened Immune System
The gut’s “good” bacteria, which loves nutritious foods like veggies, supports the body’s immune system. So if you don’t eat the right foods for a balance of good bacteria, the “bad” bacteria and yeast that thrives on high-sugar foods will impact the immune system in a negative way. (Cue more colds and infections.)
Because foods containing refined sugar provide a short-term energy boost, eating them too close to bedtime can make it more difficult to fall asleep. And although you might feel sleepy when your energy levels drop, your overall sleep quality is likely to be below par. In 2019, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who consumed a diet high in added sugars and refined carbohydrates had a greater risk of developing insomnia.
While sugar itself doesn’t cause weight gain, excess calorie intake does, says registered dietitian Carli. Added sugars are often referred to as “empty” calories, because they’re relatively high in calories yet lack the essential nutrients (like vitamins, minerals, protein, fat and fiber) the body needs for optimal health and functioning. And because it’s so easy to mindlessly consume high-sugar foods and beverages (a 12-ounce bottle of soda contains around 9.75 tablespoons, or 39 grams, of sugar) without realizing or accounting for its nutrition content, this can lead to weight gain.
So we’ve established that eating too many sugary foods causes inflammation and blood-sugar-spiking. This may lead to acne breakouts, particularly around the mouth and chin.
Certain foods can worsen and trigger anxiety, says Trista Best, registered dietitian at Balance One. Specifically, refined carbohydrates like those found in sugar-laden foods (such as pastries and convenience foods) can trigger a state of anxiety in several ways.
“These foods cause a quick rise and fall in blood glucose which leads to mood and hormonal imbalance,” explains Best. “These foods also leave us feeling hungry more quickly, which can cause anxiety. Refined carbohydrates are also inflammatory and an ongoing state of inflammation is known to cause mood and hormonal changes.”
If you eat a lot of sugar, your teeth are likely to be the first part of your body to be affected. According to the American Dental Association, sugar feeds plaque bacteria that’s already on your teeth, producing acids and wearing away at the enamel (the hard surface of your teeth).
“The bacteria that cause cavities absolutely love to feed on sugar,” adds Dr. Nikola Djordjevic, medical advisor at HealthCareers.
Carbohydrates (including sugar) are the main fuel source for your brain as well as your body. This means if you eat a high-sugar snack or meal, the subsequent drop in blood sugar can lead to that “foggy” brain feeling, when you struggle to stay focused and alert. This accounts for the afternoon slump people often talk about experiencing a couple of hours after eating a high-carb lunch.
Some research suggests that sugar can make the digestive system sluggish by decreasing the diversity of healthy bacteria in the gut. Foods that are naturally high in fiber, like apples, beans, nuts and oatmeal, are good for the digestive system. On the other hand, meat, dairy and sugar contain no fiber whatsoever. People who eat a lot of sugar might not be eating a lot of fiber.
“The foods high in sugar may be displacing more nutrient-rich and filling foods in the diet,” explains registered dietitian Summer Yule.
Constant Hunger Pangs
When your blood sugar dips a couple of hours after eating a high-sugar snack, you’ll feel hungry again – and crave even more sugar to get another spike. The bottom line: If you’re always eating sugary foods that contain no fiber or protein, you’ll never feel full. And if you feed those hunger pangs with more sugar, you’ll find it really hard to break the cycle.
Unexplained Joint Pain
Some research has linked sugary drinks to arthritis. One study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that regular consumption of sugar-sweetened soda is associated with increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis in women.
“Your joints may get inflamed due to high levels of glucose in the blood, causing swelling, particularly in the ankles,” says Djordjevic.
Difficulty in Losing Weight
You might find it more difficult to shed a few pounds if you’re eating a diet high in added sugar. Complex carbs, such as whole grains, fruits and veggies, healthy fat, like nuts and seeds, and lean protein like fish and chicken, take longer to digest. This means you feel fuller for longer and are less likely to binge or overeat. On the other hand, foods containing lots of added sugar simply don’t give you that satisfaction, so you might be tempted to reach for the cookie jar again.
Loss Of Muscle Mass
Research has found a link between added sugar and muscle loss. This is because sugar interferes with the body’s ability to synthesize protein into muscle. One animal study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, found that sugar-fed rats lost more lean body mass and kept more fat mass than rats fed on complex carbs.
Higher Blood Pressure
Salt has a bad reputation for increasing blood pressure, but sugar is even worse, according to a study in the journal Open Heart. And it doesn’t take long to have an impact – after only a few weeks on a high-sugar diet, blood pressure can increase. Another study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, found that the risk of developing hypertension increased by 8% for every sugar-sweetened beverage.
Lack Of Motivation
There’s another way that eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain, or make weight loss more difficult. According to a study carried out by the University of Illinois, published in the journal Nature, mice that were fed a standard American diet (about 18% added sugars) gained more body fat than mice that didn’t eat this diet. This was despite both groups of mice consuming the same number of calories. The researchers said the difference in body fat was because the mice on the sugary diet traveled about 20% less in their cages than the others.
Your sugar habit might be having a serious impact on your mental health.
“Many studies have shown how sugar, in particular sweetened beverages, may increase the risk of depression through inflammation but also through impairment of neurotransmitter pathways (changes in dopamine and opioid receptors),” says Carli. One study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that brain inflammation was 30% higher in clinically depressed patients.
Changed Taste Buds
When you eat sugar all the time, it affects how sweet things taste. In other words, you need even more sugar to get the right level of sweetness. So if you love super-sweet treats, you should try to reduce your sugar intake! According to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2015, steering clear of sugar for a while can help reset your taste buds. Researchers suggested that if you lower your sugar consumption for a few months, you’ll enjoy those sugary treats more, leaving you feeling satisfied with a smaller amount and less likely to binge.