Different diets call for limiting different foods and food groups, but there’s one ingredient we can almost all agree we should cut back on: sugar. Specifically, added sugars, which are the sweeteners and syrups food manufacturers add to products like soda and cookies. Consuming too much of the sweet stuff has consistently been linked with all sorts of health problems, from weight gain to tooth decay. While overdoing it here or there on a cupcake or supersized soda likely isn’t a dealbreaker for your health, consistently eating too much added sugar can have some seriously detrimental effects.
So, what exactly happens to your body when you eat too many sugary treats? Here’s what you might experience when you give your sweet tooth too much sway.
Drawbacks of Eating Too Much Sugar
Causes Blood Sugar to Spike and Drop
Our bodies need carbohydrates, and sugar is a carb in its simplest form. But too many simple carbs can elevate the sugar in your blood, leading to a dramatic spike and drop. If your blood sugars dip too low, you might experience unpleasant symptoms like nausea, fatigue, shakiness, or a rapid heartbeat.
May Lead to Weight Gain
Have you ever noticed that after you have some candy or some soda, you don’t stay full for very long? That’s because sugar contains quick-digesting carbs while offering few other nutrients, so it isn’t very satiating. Plus, eating too much added sugar can also decrease appetite-suppressing hormones and boost levels of those that promote hunger. This may be why eating too much of the sweet stuff is so strongly associated with weight gain. Research from 2019, for example, linked overconsumption of sugar with higher rates of obesity.
Can Cause Cavities
Wanna keep your dental visits short and, um, sweet? Cut back on sugar. According to the World Health Organization, sugar is the “essential dietary factor” that leads to the development of cavities. The reason why it’s such bad news for your teeth: it provides food for harmful bacteria that produce acid. This acid ultimately demineralizes your enamel and dentin, the tissue that makes up the bulk of your teeth. Good tooth brushing can help remove this bacteria, but to take your dental health a step further, keep added sugar to a minimum.
Contributes to Inflammation
Sugar has long been known as an inflammatory food — a concept supported by a large body of research. According to a 2022 study, for example, dietary sugars may be a key factor in the occurrence and aggravation of inflammation, especially when combined with processed foods. Since inflammation is an underlying cause of tons of health concerns, such as autoimmune diseases and inflammatory bowel diseases, it’s smart to keep sugar in check as much as possible.
May Increase the Risk of Heart Disease
All that sugar-related inflammation can have some pretty troubling outcomes. Besides being linked with the usual suspects, like autoimmune diseases, heart disease is also associated with inflammation. According to Harvard Health, sugar is one of the greatest threats to heart health. (Yikes!) A 2014 Harvard study found that the more calories people consume from sugar, the greater their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
Can Cause Skin Problems
Regularly dipping into the candy jar can have effects in a surprising place: your face. Older research from 2010 revealed that consuming excessive sugar created advanced glycation end products (aptly acronym-ed “AGEs”). These byproducts of sugar harm collagen and elastin fibers in the skin, creating a less youthful appearance.
Acne might also get an unwanted boost from sugar in your diet. In a large study of over 24,000 subjects, eating fatty and sugary foods was associated with a 54% higher risk of acne.
How Much Sugar is Too Much?
Since everyone has their own calorie requirements based on age, sex, height, and other factors, there’s no single recommendation for how much sugar is too much. For a ballpark, though, consider this: the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 advise limiting calories from added sugars to no more than 10% of your daily intake. For a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, that’s 200 calories, or about 12 teaspoons. For optimal heart health, the American Heart Association recommends keeping sugar even lower, at 6% of daily calories.
Though some of the consequences of too much sugar are harder to notice (such as an increased risk of heart disease), if you’re experiencing any of the more obvious signs and symptoms (like acne, cavities, or weight gain), cutting back may be a smart move.
As for how to spot those sneaky sugars? When purchasing foods, look at the “added sugars” line on the nutrition facts label. This will tell you how many grams of added sweetener were used in the manufacturing process.
Does Eating Sugar Have Any Benefits?
Considering all the downsides of sugar, it’s only natural to wonder: are there any advantages to consuming sweets? Yes — in certain situations.
Sugar is made of quick-digesting simple carbohydrates, which can provide fast energy during lengthy physical exercise. Endurance athletes like marathon runners or triathletes, for example, can benefit from consuming sweet foods and beverages as an energy source mid-race.
And then, of course, there’s sugar’s role in food enjoyment. Humans are naturally wired to enjoy sweet foods, and we all deserve a treat from time to time. Savoring the sweet flavor of your favorite peanut butter cookie, strawberry lemonade, or mint chocolate chip ice cream is part of the joy of eating (and, you might say, the joy of life!). Though sugar has its downsides, most of us don’t need to nix it from our diets entirely. When you do choose something sweet, eat it as mindfully as possible to allow it to bring you maximum pleasure.
Common Sources and Healthier Swaps
Sugar lurks not only in the obvious places (like candy, sodas, and cakes) but in some less-expected foods, too. Try these easy food swaps to limit the amount of sugar you take in each day:
- Instead of ice cream, try plain Greek yogurt with berries and a drizzle of honey
- Choose zero-calorie sparkling water or fruit-infused water over soda
- Rather than reach for high-sugar condiments like ketchup or barbecue sauce, top foods with mustard, mayonnaise, sriracha, or pesto
- In baked goods, replace half the sugar with an alternative sweetener such as stevia
- Choose low-sugar dark chocolate over extra-sweet candies or chocolate bars
- For breakfast, make oatmeal instead of digging into sweet cereal