We already know that modern Western diets are loaded with added sweeteners (even our bread has excess sugar in it). With obesity numbers skyrocketing and the nutritional science community oscillating between sugar, fat, and carbs as the scapegoat du jour, it’s hard to know what exactly is safe to eat.
There are a lot of myths surrounding the effects sugar has on our health. But even though humans need glucose to survive, it’s no secret that the exorbitant amount of sugar found in everyday foods like processed snack foods, canned food, and soft drinks have become too much for our bodies to handle.
We’ve rounded up 10 of the scariest effects a sugar-rich diet can have on your overall health, with expert input from Dr. Jennifer Haythe, a cardiologist at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York; Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse and founder of RemediesForMe.com; and Colette Heimowitz, a nutritionist at Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. who has worked with celebrities like Kim Kardashian.
Multiple studies have linked the consumption of sugary foods and drinks to weight gain. Research published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” in 2011 confirmed a “positive association” between drinking soft drinks regularly and the rising obesity epidemic.
“Sugar-sweetened beverages, particularly soda, provide little nutritional benefit and increase weight gain and probably the risk of diabetes, fractures, and dental caries,” the researchers concluded.
Your body needs glucose to survive, but when you consume more than you need, what happens?
“When you consume more sugar than the body can use, the body converts it into fatty acid and stores it for future use in adipose fatty cells, such as the hips, thighs, arms, and stomach,” Lee said.
Sugar does not actually cause cavities, contrary to popular belief. However, the waste product (acid) caused by sugar interacting with the surface of your teeth will cause cavities. So if you’re not watching what you eat (or ignore regular dental cleanses), you could be looking at a mouth full of decay.
We know the idea that eating chocolate causes acne is an old wives’ tale, but can sugary foods really cause issues for your dermatological health?
Scientists have recently made the connection between consuming dairy and foods with high glycemic indexes (aka sweet foods) with skin problems.
“Research has substantiated the role of specific foods, such as dairy products, as well as dietary patterns, including the high glycemic load diet typical of the Western diet,” a 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology said.
Increased sugar cravings
In our exposé on “myths about sugar you need to stop believing,” we concluded that there is, as of yet, no scientific consensus on whether sugar is as addictive as cocaine or can be a gateway drug to other unhealthy behaviors, as one recent controversial study suggests.
When you eat a lot of sugar, your brain releases dopamine — the “feel-good” chemical that’s released when you’re having sex or having positive human interactions.
Even though scientists have not come to a consensus on just how addictive sugar can be, a 2008 study published in the “Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews” journal noted that when given unlimited access to sugar, rats exhibited four of the signs of addiction: bingeing, withdrawal, craving, and a “gateway” to craving hard substances like alcohol.
Sounds a lot like drugs, right? The study concluded that sugar “may be addictive” only when “consumed in a binge-like manner.”
A risk of pre-diabetes
“When you eat anything with glucose in it or basic carb building blocks, your body will release insulin because that’s what helps your body process glucose into energy,” Haythe said. “The problem is when people have too much sugar at once, there’s a large release of insulin and you can develop hypoglycemia or insulin resistance.”
With insulin resistance, your body cannot properly absorb the glucose fast enough, which causes the glucose to build up in your bloodstream and liver. This, coupled with the right genetic and environmental factors, can lead to pre-diabetes, and eventually diabetes.
“By changing to a diet of proteins, healthy fats and carbohydrate foods that are high in fiber, you can avoid blood sugar spikes and the insulin responses that result in obesity and pre-diabetes,” nutritionist Colette Heimowitz told INSIDER.
Depression and anxiety
Eating a lot of sugar causes your brain to release dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical, but can a diet rich in sugar actually help cause stress and depression? New research thinks that’s possible.
Diets high in starchy and sugary foods are linked to inflammation at a much higher level than diets that are rich in lean proteins and vegetables. A 2016 study published in “The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry” suggests that inflammation is a strong indicator of depression and high stress levels.
“Sugar increases inflammation throughout the body, including in the brain,” Lee confirmed.
If you connect the dots, a sugary diet can create an inflammatory response in your body, which in turn, can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and even depression.
The most obvious physical symptom of eating too much sugar is weight gain, but alarming research shows that even if you’re not overweight, a sugar-rich diet can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease exponentially.
Study participants in research that sought the effects of sugar in the long-term discovered that “participants who consumed approximately 17% to 21% of their calories from added sugar had a 38% higher risk of cardiovascular disease mortality,” particularly those who regularly consumed sugary beverages like soda.
The average American in 2010 gets at least 10% of his or her calories from sugar, so these study participants were on the more extreme end of the scale.
We usually associate liver failure with alcohol abuse, but research suggests that sugar can do almost as much harm to our liver as alcohol.
When we eat too much sugar, it becomes too much for our bloodstream and liver (where glucose is absorbed and sugar levels are stabilized) to handle.
Chronic malabsorption of sugar can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), which is basically the abuse and scarring of the liver as it continually tries to heal itself.
NASH is known as a silent disease because symptoms don’t start appearing until it’s almost too late. NASH is associated with poor eating habits and obesity.
Your brain can’t tell when your body is full
One uncommonly spoken about effect of a diet loaded with sweeteners is the inability to know when you’re full.
When you eat too much sugar, you’re more likely to overeat because of the “empty calories” from overindulging in sweets.
A 2011 study published in the United States National Library of Medicine found that diets high in saturated fats and refined sugars can interfere with the brain’s signal to your body that you’re full.
A 2015 study at Oregon State University confirmed that sugar-rich diets can directly impact our brain’s ability to retain short and long-term memories.
The study found that after just four weeks on a high fat and high sugar diet, lab rats had decreased cognitive abilities.
“The impairment of cognitive flexibility in this study was pretty strong,” Kathy Magnusson, one of the study’s researchers, said.
A 2017 UK study confirmed this theory by proving a “tipping point link” between high blood sugar and the progression of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.
“Excess sugar is well known to be bad for us when it comes to diabetes and obesity, but this potential link with Alzheimer’s disease is yet another reason that we should be controlling our sugar intake in our diets,” Dr. Omar Kassar told The Telegraph at the time.
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