Sugary foods don't have the best reputation: from sugar-sweetened sodas to candy and desserts, we all have likely experienced the effects of eating too much sugar and trying to make a positive change to cut back. Yet, how much sugar is too much? And what does sugar do to the body when overconsumed? We spoke to dietitians to find out exactly how the body responds to excessive amounts of sugar.
What is "too much" sugar?
The American Heart Association's recommended daily allowance for sugar intake is 25 grams per day for women or 36 grams per day for men or otherwise about 10% of your daily calories.
Eating too much sugar can have a variety of side effects on its own, and it can also be associated with generally overeating total calories. Sugar is not an inherently satisfying food, say the way a high-fiber food like broccoli or high-protein food like chicken breast might be. This means you can easily consume it, and a lot of it at once.
Health concerns from eating too much sugar
Consuming too much added sugar can have numerous negative health effects, shares Wan Na Chun, MPH, RD, CPT of One Pot Wellness. "It can lead to weight gain, visceral fat accumulation, and an increased risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death worldwide," she adds.
Additional health conditions that are associated with too much sugar include:
- High triglycerides
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
However, eating sugar in moderation can help you satisfy cravings, enjoy your favorite foods, and can still be healthy. Experts agree that avoiding sugar completely is likely not the most effective solution, but rather learning how to enjoy sugar as part of your lifestyle while also considering your health is a better alternative.
Let's find out exactly what dietitians have to say about excessive sugar intake and how it impacts your body.
1. Your blood sugar rises
Carbohydrates, including sugar, quickly digest and release into our bloodstream. Sugars are one of the smallest molecules of carbohydrates, so they do not take very long before they quickly enter our bloodstream and can cause blood sugar to spike. Increased consumption of sugar in the diet can lead to increased blood sugar over time which can put someone at risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke risk.
2. Your blood pressure can go up
Salt tends to get all the bad press here, but increased sugar in the diet is also associated with elevated blood pressure. This could be because of the quality of the diet, if you are eating a lot of sugar then you may not be eating a lot of other healthy foods. It could also be from the direct effect of increased blood sugar affecting our blood pressure. When our blood sugar rises, our blood pressure rises.
3. You might experience mental health changes
Too much sugar intake has been associated with negative effects on mood and mental health, Katie Drakeford, MA, RD, CSP, LD tells us. Aside from the physical symptoms one might experience like blood sugar fluctuations and rising cortisol levels leading to an energy "crash" and then feeling, irritable, tired, or even sad, there are connections to excessive sugar and depressive symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control shares that sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda in particular, might be associated with mental health challenges.
4. You may notice weight gain and more cravings
Excessive sugar intake, especially when coming from sugar-sweetened beverages, has been associated with a higher body weight and a greater likelihood of obesity. This means that drinking soda more often could contribute to weight gain over time and impact your health. It makes sense as these sources of beverages are "empty calories" and easy to overconsume without keeping us full.
5. You are at a greater risk for heart disease
Sugar can increase your heart disease risk by creating micro-abrasions inside arteries. These tiny scratches can "catch" particles like cholesterol over time that can get stuck and build up. This process of plaque buildup, also known as atherosclerosis, is a major risk factor for heart disease, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
6. You can build up more fat in your liver
Sugar, in the context of a calorie surplus, is digested and stored over time as body fat. Excess body fat is associated with increased fatty liver deposits also known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Also associated with a slew of health concerns, NAFLD can put you at a greater risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
6. You might notice hormone changes
Hormone-related conditions like Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) can be impacted by diet and lifestyle choices. Particularly, there seems to be a strong association between insulin resistance and PCOS symptom management. As a PCOS dietitian, Bess Berger, RDN, CDN shares that she works with women who suffer from blood sugar issues and how excess sugar is affecting their hormones. "Moderating sugar intake can greatly improve the balance of hormones in our body," she explains.
7. You could be at a greater risk for some cancers
Perhaps one of the scariest statistics, excessive sugar intake may raise your risk for cancer, says Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD. A 2020 study suggests that added sugars in desserts, dairy products, and beverages may contribute to this risk, particularly for breast cancer.
Remember, the Dietary Guidelines suggest keeping sugar intake under 10% of your daily calories. This means you can enjoy your favorite foods in moderation, but you'll want to be mindful about which options you choose.
- Source: American Heart Association: Added Sugars
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- Source: The Dose Makes the Poison: Sugar and Obesity in the United States – a Review
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- Source: The Impact and Burden of Dietary Sugars on the Liver
- Source: Nutrition Strategy and Life Style in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome—Narrative Review
- Source: Total and added sugar intakes, sugar types, and cancer risk: results from the prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort