You’ve finally kicked the ice-cream-after-dinner habit. There’s no way you’re eating too much sugar, right? Not so fast. While nixing obvious sugar bombs like candy and cake is a huge step toward a healthier diet, there are lots of other sneaky foods where sugar hides. That includes everything from high fructose corn syrup found in salad dressings to fruit juice added to “all-natural” protein bars.
The average American consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar per day, which is the equivalent of 270 calories, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. And that’s a major problem because added sugars contribute extra calories to your diet and have no essential nutrients to help your body function at its best.
Some preliminary research has suggested that a high-sugar diet raises your blood sugar, increasing free radicals and compounds that boost inflammation. Over time, too much sugar ups your risk of obesity, increasing your risk of diabetes, and may even on its own increase your risk of conditions like certain cancers and chronic illnesses like heart disease, says Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD, CDN.
Before we get to the subtle signs to look out for that you’re consuming too much sugar, let’s delve into what sugar exactly is and how it affects your body.
What is sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate in its simplest form. There are many types of sugars, from maple syrup to high fructose corn syrup. Regardless of the type, your body breaks down these sugars into glucose, your body’s preferred form of energy.
There are two main sources of sugar: natural and processed.
- Natural sugar is found in whole, natural foods. You likely associate fruit as the food group closely linked to natural sugar, but vegetables such as carrots, beets, squash, zucchini, and onions also contain some natural sugar. Examples of natural sugar include the sugars found in dairy products, fruit, and vegetables.
- Processed sugar is sugar that’s been tinkered with in some way and extracted from its natural source. Examples of processed sugar include white cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and agave.
Why is added sugar bad for you?
It’s important to note that when we talk about too much sugar, we’re talking about added sugar, not naturally-occurring sugar in food.
The main difference between sugar and added sugar is simply whether or not the sugar is added to a food or it’s naturally found in that food. For example, honey is simply called sugar if eaten on its own. Once you use honey to sweeten a product, whether it’s yogurt or cookies, the honey is considered “added sugar.” Added sugar can be either natural or processed sugar, explains Karen Ansel, RD, author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging.
When it comes to the natural sugars found in a whole sweet potato or an apple, “most of us don’t come even close to overdoing it,” says Zeitlin. Experts aren’t worried about the sugar content because you’re getting so many other benefits, like vitamins and fiber to slow down and how your body absorbs and uses sugar. As a general guideline, she suggests limiting yourself to about two cups of whole fruit a day.
What happens to your body when you eat sugar?
While your body can’t tell the difference between these types of sugars, that doesn’t mean they all get treated the same way.
Simple sugar alone moves to your bloodstream quickly, causing your body to spike the production of insulin to transfer glucose into your cells. “We’re finding out more all the time about the negative health effects of too much insulin in our bloodstreams,” says Ansel.
Complex carbs like whole wheat, on the other hand, are made from long chains of glucose that take your body longer to break down. This longer digestion time gives you more sustained energy and helps you to avoid blood sugar and insulin spikes.
Another difference is in the dosing. “You don’t find foods in nature that have the insane amounts of added sugar found in processed foods. Putting that much sugar into your system is unnatural, and your body isn’t built to digest it,” says Ansel.
What foods have added sugars?
Ultra-processed foods—foods with added flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other additives—contribute to nearly 90 percent of our sugar intake, according to a BMJ Journal study. The main sources of added sugars in ultra-processed foods are:
- soft drinks
- fruit drinks
- milk-based drinks (chocolate milk)
- cakes, cookies, and pies
- sweet snacks
- breakfast cereals
- ice cream and ice-pops
As you can see, sugar-sweetened drinks are the top three sources of sugar in our diet. In fact, almost half of the added sugars in our diets come from drinks like soda and fruit drinks.
Check both the nutrition label and ingredients to find added sugar foods. “Just because a label says ‘no added sugar,’ you still want to read the label and see how many grams of sugar there are in that item per serving,” says Zeitlin.
How much sugar is too much?
When it comes to how much added sugar to eat per day, the answer isn’t so clearcut.
The most recent dietary guidelines recommend that added sugars make up no more than 10 percent of your daily calories. That equates to 38 grams (10 teaspoons) for women on a 1,500-calorie diet or 50 grams (13 teaspoons) for men on a 2,000-calorie diet.
Both the American Heart Association and World Health Organization are more conservative, recommending about 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day of added sugar for women and 36 grams (9 teaspoons) per day for men.
RELATED: The easy guide to cutting back on sugar is finally here.
What are the symptoms of eating too much sugar?
So how do you know you’re eating too much sugar? What are the symptoms? Here are 16 signs you’re eating too much sugar and exactly what to do if you think you are overdosing on the sweet stuff. And if you’re looking to make more changes, be sure to check out these 21 Best Healthy Cooking Hacks of All Time.
Some research suggests that sugar might decrease the diversity of healthy bacteria in your gut within as little as a week, making your digestive system sluggish. “Too much white sugar won’t help you if you’re trying to promote healthy bacteria in your system,” adds Zeitlin. Foods naturally high in fiber have a positive impact—and people eating lots of sugar generally aren’t eating a lot of fiber, says Ansel.
While experts say that severe acne has nothing to do with diet for the vast majority of people, some studies have linked breakouts to eating too many sugary foods. In theory, says Ansel, sugar increases the production of hormones—particularly androgens—that are linked to inflammatory hormonal acne, which usually appears around the jawline and the mouth, says Bruce Robinson, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
“If you’re struggling with breakouts and don’t know why, it can be helpful to cut out added sugars in your diet,” says Ansel.
Some studies have linked sugars to mood disorders like depression. In addition to blood sugar swings, sugar can mess with the neurotransmitters in your brain that regulate your moods. Sugar, in particular, causes a spike in the feel-good hormone serotonin. “Because we know carbs affect neurotransmitters, it only follows that when you upset your carb balance by having so many entering your body at an unnatural rate it might make you feel better at first. But what goes up comes down, and they may make you feel worse in the long run,” says Ansel. Result: You feel cranky and tired.
Zeitlin says the best way to stabilize your blood sugar and mood is to eat more foods that take longer to digest, like whole grains, fiber, and protein.
Eating a cookie or cupcake with loads of added sugar too close to bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep, at least in the short-term. “It will give you a boost of energy by spiking your blood sugar, which always makes going to bed harder when you’re trying to wind down,” says Zeitlin. It might have the opposite effect shortly thereafter because sugar triggers the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which makes you feel relaxed and even sleepy, Ansel adds. But even if it is easier to nod off, the sleep you get probably won’t be as satisfying. “You might not wake up feeling as good, because your blood sugar dips during the night,” says Ansel.
A good rule of thumb, says Zeitlin: Stop eating entirely—especially sugary foods—two hours before bedtime, so you don’t get indigestion and sugar has time to make its way through your system—and you can relax and get into sleep mode.
A high-sugar diet has been shown to speed up skin aging. That’s because too much dietary sugar reacts with proteins in your bloodstream and forms advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), damaging the structural proteins in skin collagen and elastin that make your supple and bouncy. “A high sugar diet can definitely make your skin wrinkle faster, making you look older. Limiting sugar can make difference,” says Ansel.
This one’s a no-brainer, but sugar is a major cause behind tooth decay, according to the American Dental Association. When sugar sits on your teeth, it feeds plaque bacteria that are already naturally there, producing acids that wear away at your tooth enamel (the hard surface of your teeth), which leads to cavities. “The worst is a combo of sugar and acid, which you get from sports drink or soda, since both destroy tooth enamel,” says Ansel. “People who drink lots of these drinks tend to have lots more dental problems.”
Solution: Swap the soda for sparkling or mineral water infused with your favorite fruit and/or herbs, like watermelon and basil or blackberries and mint.
The more sugar you eat, the more likely you are to crave it. “Sugar boosts feel-good hormones. Because your brain feels good, it will want that high again,” says Zeitlin. “You’re also having peaks and dips in your blood sugar, which leads you to want to eat more.”
An after-dinner sugar habit can be one of the toughest diet pitfalls to kick. “Habits can be as powerful as hunger in steering food choices. After a meal, you should technically feel full, but if you’re in the habit of treating yourself to dessert every night your body becomes conditioned to want it,” says Ansel. If this is the case for you, a lot of people find it easier to avoid sugar altogether than having less of it, she says.
“If sugar doesn’t have fiber or protein with it, it won’t fill you up,” says Zeitlin. That’s because sugar causes your blood sugar to spike and quickly dip, so you feel hungrier and crave more sugar to bounce back. “If you eat the bread basket before your meal, it will make you feel full initially, but by the time dinner rolls around you’ll feel hungrier,” she says.
Instead, pass on the rolls and wait to fill up first on a salad or serving of salmon, chicken, or lean steak. Foods with fiber, healthy fats and lean protein fill you up, so you have a better grasp on whether or not you really want that slice of bread.
Some research has linked regularly having sugary drinks to rheumatoid arthritis in women, possibly due to inflammation. Other research found that people who have five or more sweetened beverages a week—including fruit juice—are more likely to have arthritis. Ansel notes that these studies only found an association, which doesn’t necessarily mean that sugar directly causes arthritis.
While sugar in and of itself doesn’t necessarily in and of itself make the pounds pile on, it can keep you from losing them or maintaining a healthy weight. Weight gain, of course, happens when you eat too much of anything. “But the amount of research linked to sugar and weight gain is undeniable,” says Zeitlin. Food with loads of white sugar make you feel less satisfied, so you’re more likely to eat more calories per meal.
On the other hand, complex carbs (like whole grains, fruits, and veggies), healthy fats (like nuts and seeds), and lean protein (like fish and chicken) take your system longer to digest, keeping your blood sugar levels stable and you feeling fuller faster and for longer. “If you have a candy bar at 4 p.m., you’ll feel full for short while, but in a couple of hours you’ll feel hungrier than if you had an apple,” says Ansel.
Your whole body—including your brain—uses carbs, including sugar, as its main fuel source. So when blood sugar drops after a high-sugar meal, that can result in brain fog. “When your blood sugar drops, your energy is dropping, so your ability to stay focused and alert can drop too,” says Zeitlin. Swapping the cookie for an apple with a tablespoon of natural peanut butter will give you sustained energy to face down a 3 p.m. slump.
Salty foods are known for causing bloat, but foods high in sugar can also cause your tummy to bulge. But once you take control of your sweet cravings, you can kiss the bloat goodbye. It’s also important to note that if you have a sensitivity to sugars such as fructose (sugar in fruit) and lactose (in dairy), your belly might experience bloating and other common IBS symptoms.
Researchers found a link between refined sugar and age-related muscle loss due to sugar inhibiting the body’s ability to synthesize protein into muscle. Additionally, an animal study noted that sugar-fed rats lost more lean body mass and retained more fat mass than complex-carb-fed rats. Once you start to curb your sweet cravings and limit your consumption of sugar, you’ll start to see a difference in your workouts and feel stronger.
Sugar is worse for your blood pressure than salt, according to a study in the journal Open Heart. Just a few weeks on a high-sucrose diet can increase both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Another British Journal of Nutrition study found that for every sugar-sweetened beverage, the risk of developing hypertension increased eight percent.
Consuming too much sugar can make you gain weight in many ways, but the weirdest way is that it can reduce actual physical activity. In one University of Illinois study, mice that were fed a diet that mimicked the standard American diet–i.e., one that was about 18 percent added sugars—gained more body fat even though they weren’t fed more calories. One of the reasons was that the mice traveled about 20 percent less in their little cages than mice that weren’t fed the sugary diet.
Eating sugar too frequently—including adding sugar or even sugar substitutes like Splenda to certain foods—can alter what your taste buds interpret as sweet. “A bowl of strawberries is sweet on its own, but if you sprinkle sugar or Stevia on it, your baseline for sweet is so much higher than the fruit on its own,” says Zeitlin. “It changes your expectation of how a dessert should taste.” Cutting out added sugars and fake sweeteners as often as possible helps reteach your body to enjoy the natural sweetness of the fruit.