Sugar and Your Body: Not a Sweet Deal

By Cara Everett, MS, RDN

November 08, 2022

Sugar Effects

The holidays are just around the corner, and, for many people, that means more desserts, candy, sweetened drinks, and party food — all of which can add up to a lot of sugar. It’s delicious, but studies show that sugar does more harm than good to the human body.

Inflammation, weight gain, poor oral health, and chronic medical conditions have been linked to sugar consumption. Far from taking the sweetness out of holiday meals, read on to get ideas for adding flavor and a sweet note to your favorite desserts without loading up on sugar.

How much sugar iss too much?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a daily sugar intake of no more than 6 teaspoons (24 grams) for women and children and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men. But how much do most Americans currently eat?

It’s hard to believe, but data from the CDC shows that we eat about 17 teaspoons (68 grams) per day or two to three times the amount recommended by the AHA. It’s not hard to see why our country struggles with soaring rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other inflammatory conditions, all of which have been linked to excessive sugar consumption.

As a reference, a 12-ounce serving of soda or other sweetened drink, such as lemonade, contains about 65 grams of sugar — the amount an adult should consume in about two days.

Your body on sugar

It’s not an exaggeration to say that sugar wreaks havoc on the body. For starters, sugar is a quickly digested carbohydrate, which causes blood glucose levels to rise quickly and then fall just as quickly, leaving many people tired, cranky, and wanting more sugar again.

Sugar also triggers chronic inflammation in the body. This is a major concern for anyone with an inflammatory condition such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, or an autoimmune condition. When your body is in a state of chronic inflammation, the immune system is already working overtime. When sugar is introduced, raising the inflammation even further, it can exacerbate pain, fatigue, and inflammatory damage.

According to Harvard Health, sugar intake is linked to an increased risk of developing the following medical conditions:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Gout
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Tooth decay

Hidden sources of sugar

Reducing sugar intake is a challenge for many of us because the typical American diet is so sugar-laden. Not only do we add sugar to foods and beverages (Starbucks, anyone?), food manufacturers add sugar in one form or another to an astonishing list of food products.

Check out the following lineup of surprising high-sugar foods:

  • Bread (rolls, hamburger, and hot dog buns, sandwich bread)
  • Cereal (all varieties)
  • Crackers
  • Deli meats
  • Ketchup, barbeque sauce, and salad dressing
  • Milk (chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, and any other flavored milk)
  • Sports drinks
  • Yogurt (any flavor other than plain)

Keep in mind that many of these foods are not typically thought of as sweets. Food companies know that our taste buds prefer sweet flavors, so they add sugar to many foods that historically were never sweetened.

This is not an exhaustive list of foods with added sugars, but it contains some foods you wouldn’t think of as sugary. We all know that desserts, sodas, and other sweetened drinks, candy, and chocolate contain sugar. But most people don’t think of deli meat or crackers as being sources of hidden sugar, and yet they definitely are.

How to cut back on sugar

Here are some ways you can eat less sugar while still enjoying your favorite foods:

  • Use unsweetened applesauce in place of a portion of the sugar and fat in recipes for baked goods. While the primary goal is to reduce sugar, you’ll get a better result if you reduce both sugar and fat since the moisture in the applesauce takes the place of some of the moisture contributed by fat in the recipe. For instance, in a cookie recipe with ½ c. butter and 1 c. sugar, I replace half of the sugar and half of the butter with ½ c. applesauce. So the adjusted recipe would contain ½ c. sugar, ½ c. unsweetened applesauce, and ¼ c. butter. You may be surprised that you don’t even miss the extra sugar!
  • Use fruit-sweetened apple butter or jam instead of syrup on pancakes, waffles, and French toast
  • Pass on sweetened drinks. It’s much better for your body and your teeth to eat your calories than to drink them in the form of sweet beverages. This means cutting out sweetened coffee drinks, sodas, sports drinks, and juice.
  • Enjoy fruit that’s fresh, frozen, or canned (in juice or water) for dessert rather than ice cream or candy.
  • When you want to splurge, try making homemade desserts with half (or less) of the sugar called for in the recipe. These desserts will be far lower in sugar than those you buy premade or order in a restaurant.

When you’re grocery shopping, make it a habit to check the food label of every product you buy to see how much sugar it contains per serving. You might be surprised at how much sugar is in foods you didn’t even realize tasted sweet! Or worse, maybe they don’t taste sweet because your taste buds have become so accustomed to sugar. Choosing foods with less than 3 grams of sugar per serving can go a long way toward helping you and your family reduce your sugar intake and improve your overall health.

Check out the WellRx Grocery Guidance App for nutrition information to help you get started on a healthy eating plan.

Cara Everett, MS, RDN, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who helps clients reach optimal health and manage chronic conditions with smart food choices. Her work has been featured in a variety of online publications such as WellRx, Road Runner Sports, VeryWell, and National Council on Aging. She writes about nutrition, parenting, pediatrics, and healthcare devices. Cara lives with her family and a collection of animals on a farm in southern Ohio. When she’s not writing, she loves to run with her two dogs.

Resources:

https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/data-statistics/added-sugars.html

https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/added-sugars

https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/tracking-down-added-sugars-infographic

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/playing-with-the-fire-of-inflammation

https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/the-sweet-danger-of-sugar

https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/added-sugar-in-the-diet/

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