Why Everyone Should Eat Less Sugar Plus 7 Ways to Cut Back From an RD
Our content strives to support, inform, and motivate you to meet your health goals. We want to be your trusted source of expert- and science-backed info dispensed in simple, actionable ways. Read our Editorial Guidelines.
Did you know that Americans power through 30 teaspoons of sugar daily, which is three times the recommended amount per U.S. Dietary Guidelines? From soda to sports drinks to snacks, added sugar can lurk in salad dressings, sauces, and cereal, too.
Obviously, a little sugar now and then is fine when you don’t have health issues. It’s your birthday? Enjoy a slice of cake!
When sugar intake becomes excessive or replaces healthy foods in your diet, it could become a problem. How much sugar is too much for good health? Is sugar “addiction” real? Keep reading to find out.
What Does Sugar Do to Your Body?
Sugar in Your Food
Added sugar, aka “refined” sugar, is the type that companies add to products to sweeten them. Dextrose, sucrose, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, honey, brown sugar, corn syrup, or high fructose corn syrup all mean SUGAR.
Look at the Nutrition Facts section of a food label. Sugar is listed with other carbohydrates as “added sugars.” Divide the grams of sugar by four to calculate the number of teaspoons per serving. Reality check: One 12-ounce can of Coke has 39 grams of sugar, which is roughly 10 teaspoons. The sugar in just one soda a day is plenty according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
Sugar provides four calories per gram but no vitamins, minerals, or other valuable nutrients in your diet. Healthcare professionals see sugar as “empty calories,” though it does get used or stored as energy in your body.
Sugar and Blood Sugar
Added sugar gets broken down quickly once it’s eaten and raises blood sugar, signaling your body to secrete the hormone insulin to shuttle glucose into your cells for energy. Sugar (from any carbohydrate) that’s not used for energy will be stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen for use between meals or for exercise. When glycogen stores are full, extra sugar gets stored as fat.
In individuals with insulin resistance or diabetes, sugar doesn’t make it into cells and may linger in the bloodstream, damaging arteries and nerves. Research shows a strong link between diabetes and heart disease.
Even without diabetes, excess sugar is associated with the risk of heart disease. A large study of over 109,000 women found that those drinking one or more sugar-sweetened beverages or artificially sweetened beverages daily experienced higher rates of cardiovascular disease.
Desserts high in sugar like ice cream, candy, cake, and other pastries are also often high in fat, contributing to heart disease risk. Sugar and fat may cause arteries to become sticky and develop plaque more easily. More research is needed to find the connection between artificial sweeteners and heart disease risk.
Your Brain on Sugar
We often crave sugary foods when we’re stressed. Previous animal and human research show that energy-dense foods like cake, chocolate, and ice cream may offer some pain relief by tapping into our dopamine (feel-good hormone) receptors. Sweet food provides feel-good memories that may bring some joy when we’re stressed or sad. Whether sugar is “addictive” is up for debate. Food addiction has not been recognized by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) but does share characteristics with substance abuse.
A research review on how simple sugars trigger addictive symptoms supports the idea. Behavioral responses to some foods imitate those of substance abuse. Regulation of food consumption uses similar brain circuits, and individuals with obesity or addiction show the same brain activation and neurochemical patterns. Glucose and insulin impact the brain to change dopamine concentration and could result in an addiction-like craving.
Excess sugar intake over time may impact how your brain works. One study found that higher sugar intake may raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, which was recently dubbed “type 3 diabetes” (though it’s not an official classification of diabetes).
Simple sugars contribute to the buildup of beta-amyloid proteins that damage parts of the brain responsible for memory. Picture the neurons of your brain becoming “sugar-coated” and caramelized. It’s a good-looking image for a cinnamon roll, but not your brain.
A Mediterranean diet, which is typically low in added sugar, may help prevent dementia. An observational study found that consuming an anti-inflammatory diet low in sugar that includes coffee, tea, fruits, vegetables, beans, and lentils could reduce the risk of getting dementia by 33%.
Why Should You Cut Back on Sugar?
The connection between added sugar and weight gain is strong. Added sugars digest quickly and don’t provide a feeling of fullness compared to complex carbohydrates that contain fiber (think rolled oats, whole wheat bread, or brown rice). Processed foods high in sugar taste extra yummy and may trigger addiction-like behaviors that lead to overeating.
Sugar could blunt appetite regulation by disrupting the gut-brain axis (GBA), leading to food cravings and increased food intake. The GBA is connected in the brain to the vagus nerve, which runs the length of the brain to the gut. Stretching of the stomach and hormone secretion caused by eating too much can signal to the brain to increase or decrease appetite.
A recent review on how different foods can impact what you weigh confirms the connection between high-sugar food and weight gain. When compared to nutritious, low-sugar foods such as vegetables, nuts, and dairy, foods high in added sugar are linked with weight gain.
Excess sugar also impacts your gut microbiome, the collection of bacteria that helps or hinders your health. Dysbiosis means there’s a disruption in the bacteria in your gut. It’s been linked with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), Clostridium difficile infection (C-diff), non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and inflammatory bowel disease.
A recent mouse study found that a type of immune cell known as Th17 protects against diseases like diabetes and obesity. Bacteria called filamentous are vital to the animals’ health, as it impacts Th17. Consuming a Western-style diet (often high in sugar), reduced this healthy bacteria.
Sugar, Gout, and Kidney Stones
Sugar intake is also related to the production of uric acid, a type of waste product that can build up in the blood and cause gout, kidney stones, and other inflammatory conditions.
If you drink a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages, beware that they’ve been linked with increased uric acid production. Research suggests that intake of soda and other sweetened drinks was associated with higher uric acid levels in adults and a risk for gout and kidney stones.
The good news is that you can reduce your sugar intake to prevent all these unwanted conditions.
Dietitian’s Tips for Reducing Sugar Intake
Eat enough healthy food! Calorie restriction may lead to overeating, especially sugary treats.
Reduce overall sugar intake. While the jury is out about “sugar addiction,” it’s still highly palatable and it’s way too easy to let one cookie lead to many.
Swap out sugary drinks with seltzer water, unsweetened tea, coffee, or water flavored with slices of citrus fruit, cucumbers, or strawberries.
Include protein and fiber in your meals to control hunger — this may also reduce cravings for sugar.
Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can raise cortisol levels, which may increase cravings for sweets.
Enjoy fresh, seasonal fruit after meals instead of high-calorie desserts with excess added sugar.
Deal with stress in positive ways such as exercising, journaling, or seeking help from a counselor (you can talk to your Kickoff trainer, too).
Bottom Line on Sugar
We can all benefit from less sugar. Reducing sugar in packaged foods and beverages by 20–40% could cut nearly 2.5 million cardiovascular events like strokes and heart attacks. This simulation study found that this act alone would cut roughly 490,000 deaths and 750,000 cases of diabetes in adults over their lifetimes.
While the food industry bears some responsibility for sugar in our diets, our attitudes and behavior about sugar have to improve, too. By incorporating some of the tips above, you may prevent a trove of unwanted conditions. Can you have your cake and eat it, too? In moderation, all things are possible.