Sugar has appealed to people around the world for thousands of years. But the effects of this sweet seduction are not all pleasant. Doctors continue to find and report that sugar wreaks havoc and disease in the body.
Some people reason that sugar is natural, and therefore, okay. Certain foods do contain natural forms of sugar like the fructose found in fruit. Natural sugar compounds are also found in dairy, grains, and some vegetables.1,2,3
But sugars that are added to foods and drinks are processed or refined. These sugars are sometimes put in during production to make foods and drinks last longer. They are also added when foods and drinks are prepared to enrich the taste.1,2
The following forms of sugar are all added sugars:
- Brown sugar
- Cane juice
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt sugar
- Raw sugar
- Sugar molecules ending in “ose” (e.g., dextrose, glucose, maltose, sucrose, etc.)
- Syrup, and
- Table sugar.1,2,3
Most people know that desserts like cakes, candy, cookies, ice cream, and pies are filled with sugar. But sugars are also hidden in many other processed foods from breads and cereals to salad dressings and even packaged soups. Sweetened beverages like coffee, juice, soft drinks, and tea also contain high levels of added sugars.1,2,3,4
Dangers of added sugar
Added sugar affects the way the body functions. Some of the impacts occur instantly. Other changes take place slowly, resulting in more dire outcomes over time.
Unlike natural sugars that gradually break down in the body and provide energy, added sugar jolts the body.1 Normal function comes to a halt as the body attempts to stop the flow of incoming sugar. Insulin rushes forth to process the sugar, bringing a short-lived spike in energy that soon gives way to sluggishness.
Some describe this sugar shock as intoxicating. Feeling confused and dizzy is common. Indeed, sugar sets off an alarm in the body that loudly warns of an ingested toxin.
Sugar is also addictive. Like a drug, sugar triggers a release of dopamine in the brain. The dopamine hormone conveys pleasure—and some people who experience this thrill seek it again and again.5
Consuming lots of added sugar increases people’s risk of developing certain diseases. According to the American Heart Association, several cancers, cardiovascular disease, dementia, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diseases of the kidneys and liver, and obesity are among these diseases. Added sugar also causes inflammation, which is linked to many chronic illnesses.4
A group of doctors studied the connection between added sugar and cardiovascular disease in American adults. Their researched confirmed that eating added sugar raises people’s risk of death from heart disease. The full report was published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014.6
Limits on added sugar
The dangers of added sugar are becoming more and more evident. What may be a little less clear is how much added sugar is okay to eat. Several sources offer suggestions.
Most agree on limiting added sugar. This wisdom can be traced back to the Bible. “Do you like honey? Don’t eat too much, or it will make you sick! (Proverbs 25:16 NLT)”7
The American Heart Association advises that men consume at most 36 grams (9 teaspoons or 150 calories) of added sugar daily. The limit drops to 25 grams (6 teaspoons or 100 calories) of added sugar daily for women and children above age two. A single can of soda, which typically contains eight teaspoons of sugar, exceeds the limit for most.3,4
The American Dental Association concurs with the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO suggests that added sugars comprise less than 10% of total calories consumed by men, women, and children. The WHO notes that decreasing added sugars to 5% of total calories is even better for people’s health.8
Dr. Liza Leal with Meridian Medical Dental Healthcare recommends removing all added sugars and refined carbohydrates (carbs) from one’s diet. This is a key tenet of the anti-inflammatory keto lifestyle she encourages and follows. This lifestyle includes only minimal amounts of dairy.
The body is perhaps the most important guide when it comes to nutrition. The body does not require sugar to operate.1,2 The amount of added sugar the body can handle varies from person to person. The body’s reaction to added sugar points to the threshold.
Better than added sugar
Dr. Liza Leal always encourages her family of patients to make better choices. “Think through the response,” she says. “Little changes can have big rewards.”
The following examples portray some of the better choices she advocates:
- Adding exogenous ketones and MCT oil or powder to coffee or tea to fuel the body and bypass sugar and carb cravings.
- Refreshing with water.
- Drinking unsweetened almond milk or coconut milk in place of dairy.
- Eating foods that are full of nutrients, not added sugars.
- Selecting carbs that come from vegetables.
- Filling up on these free calories: cucumbers, mushrooms, and peppers.
- Choosing low glycemic fruits over high glycemic fruits to avoid a rapid rise in blood sugar.
- Reaching for an apple instead of a chocolate bar.
- Using healthy sweeteners including stevia.
- Enhancing the flavor of foods and drinks with herbs and spices such as mint and cinnamon.
- Baking keto-friendly desserts like blueberry muffins with almond flour.
- Eating a smaller piece or only a few bites of a sweet treat on holidays and special occasions.
This knowledge arms people to make informed and better choices when sugar calls. People can stand firm and not give way to the sweet seduction of sugar.
There is still time to change the course. All it takes is 21 days to break the addiction to added sugar. Dr. Liza Leal often shares, “Commit to not eat sugar for a month—and change your life.”
Ask your doctor where to start to develop a personal nutrition plan. Listen to your body. The key is to keep moving, so you can stay healthy and live your best life—a truly sweeter life.
- The sweet danger of sugar. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar. Published May 2017. Updated November 5, 2019. Accessed August 29, 2020.
- Sugar 101. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/sugar-101. Updated April 17, 2018. Accessed August 29, 2020.
- Added Sugar Is Not So Sweet. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/added-sugar-is-not-so-sweet-infographic. Published 2019. Accessed August 29, 2020.
- How Too Much Added Sugar Affects Your Health. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/how-too-much-added-sugar-affects-your-health-infographic. Published 2020. Accessed August 29, 2020.
- Rada P, Avena NM, Hoebel BG. Daily bingeing on sugar repeatedly releases dopamine in the accumbens shell. Neuroscience. 2005;134(3):737-744. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.04.043
- Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, Flanders WD, Merritt R, Hu FB. Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):516-524. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13563
- Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
- Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2015.