The Shocking Truth about Processed Sugar

Medically reviewed by Mary Ahern MS, RDN, RYT March 14, 2024| Written by Zenda Nel

The Shocking Truth about Processed Sugar

Feeling upset or down, we’ve all reached for something sweet. After all, sugar is comforting and most people just adore the taste. Yet, excessive added sugar intake has become a problem in modern society.

Research has shown that since 1976, people in the United States have dramaticallyincreased their sugar intake. This increase has come with a notable spike in obesity and weight gain.

It may seem like many people have become addicted to sugar. 

So do you think you are addicted to sugar? 

Odds are you are not; rather you just have a sugar craving. But how does this craving rule your life?

Well, your midmorning doughnut contains simple sugars that quickly spike your blood sugar levels. This stimulates the pancreas to secrete insulin to maintain your blood sugar levels. But this results in you not staying full for very long and does not contribute the amount of energy you likely need to stay energized throughout the day.

In turn, you begin craving something sweet again to give you another high. 

And so, the cycle continues.

It may be that you’re one of those people who say they don't have a sweet tooth. 

And yet, you constantly crave starchy food like bagels, French fries, pretzels, crackers, pasta, etc.

But this craving also works the same as sugar cravings. It’s because starchy foods are metabolized by the body into simple sugars, which also puts your blood sugar on a rollercoaster. 

Understanding Sugar

Table sugar or sucrose is equal parts fructose and glucose. Glucose is present in all carbohydrates and starchy foods and is the key energy source for cellular metabolism. In contrast, fructose is found in fruit but it is not metabolized in the same way as glucose. 

Unlike glucose, fructose does not stimulate the production of insulin or leptin. These hormones are responsible for making one feel satisfied, thereby contributing to the regulation of the amount of food we eat. 

Fructose is found naturally in fruits and vegetables, and some fructose is part of a healthy diet.

However, fructose is a common additive (such as High Fructose corn syrup or plenty of other sweeteners) into highly processed foods due to being naturally sweeter than glucose. Excess fructose consumption has been linked to obesity and certain GI tract cancers due to its impact on the cells thatline our GI tract. 

Natural vs Processed Sugar

Natural sugar is found naturally in fruit, starchy vegetables, whole grains, milk, and milk products. These naturally occurring sugars are safe to eat. 

After all, these sugars come with other food components. For instance, fiber which slows down digestion and doesn’t cause blood sugar see-saw associated with the negative effects of sugar intake. 

Processed or refined sugar is the granulated sugar made from sugar cane or corn syrup made from corn. These sugars are stripped of all their goodness, including iron, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and vitamin B6. 

While natural sources of sugar usually contain complex carbohydrates; refined sugar is a simple carbohydrate that digests quickly and plays havoc with blood sugar levels.

That said, certain natural sources of sugar like honey, maple syrup, and agave are not innocent bystanders either. After all, these sugars are also digested like refined sugars and should be eaten only in moderation.

The sugars in sodas, condiments, sweet treats, and white bread are processed sugars. And so, these should be limited as much as possible. 

Health Risks of Processed Sugar 

Sugar in itself is not bad, but taking too much of it can be very detrimental to your health. Let's take a look at what happens to your body when you indulge in too much sugar.

1. Too Much Sugar Makes You Overweight

America is a prime example of the negative results of consuming too much sugar. 

About two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. Surveys suggest that on average an American consumes roughly17 teaspoons of added sugar a day - 5 teaspoons more than the recommended daily amount. So, it’s hardly surprising that many people end up gaining weight.

However, obesity is not limited to the States as it’s a rising problem worldwide. 

But the major cause is probably a universal favorite drink and all its peers. Yes, I’m talking about Coca-Cola and other sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages. 

Soft drinks, such as soda, fruit juices, lemonade, and sweetened iced tea are also considered culprits, particularly the high-fructose corn syrup in them.

In the United States, on average, a can of soda provides 150 kcal and 40–50 g of sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is 45% glucose and 55% fructose. That adds up to 10 teaspoons of table sugar. Scientists estimate that regular intake of this amount of sugar can lead to a weight gain of15 pounds in one year - that is if the person follows a typical American diet and doesn't actively reduce calories.

Surely, being overweight isn't so bad but obesity can result in various other illnesses including type II diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and coronary heart disease.

2. Consistently Eating Too Much Sugar Can Lead to Type 2 Diabetes

Eating large amounts of sugar invariably leads to weight gain and increased body fat. Both of these are associated with diabetes. And so, indulging in too much sugar can be linked to diabetes. 

Now that slice of cake or doughnut every day is not worth the risk of becoming diabetic. 

But then, so many people are diabetic these days that it has become a norm and we forget that it is a grievous condition. In 2021,36.4 million Americans had type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is a serious condition because it can result in many health problems, including

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Kidney disease
  • Foot problems (nerve damage, loss of feeling) 
  • Sores and infections on the feet and legs that don't heal, and can result in amputation 
  • Eye disease (over time the damage to the eyes can result in blindness)

Diabetes is one of the top 10 causes of death globally. When a person has diabetes, they also havean increased risk of dying from infections, cardiovascular disease, stroke, chronic kidney disease, chronic liver disease, and cancer.

Though high sugar intake is a risk factor for diabetes; there are other factors too.

See Article:Preventing Risks of Type-2 Diabetes 

Initially, a person is prediabetic - a condition which may further deteriorate into Type-2 diabetes. However, prediabetes can be reversed through proper diet and precautions.

3. Fatty Liver Disease

Serious liver damage is not only caused by too much alcohol; it can also be the result of being overweight or obese. 

When a person carries too much weight, fat builds up in the liver causing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). 

A severe form of NAFLD is NASH which can cause inflammation and liver cell damage as well as fat deposits in the liver. If not treated, inflammation and liver cell damage can cause scarring, of the liver, leading to cirrhosis or liver cancer in some cases.

NAFLD is a serious problem worldwide with a global incidence of47 in 1,000 people. Also, this disease affects more men than women. 

Research shows a close link between NAFLD and insulin resistance as abouttwo-thirds of all type 2 diabetes patients also have an NAFLD.

It’s because individuals with diabetes type 2 often have poor eating habits including ingesting too much sugar. And so, this can put them at risk for serious liver disease. 

Strikingly, about90% of obesity patients and 75% of overweight people suffer from NAFLD. 

4. Increased Risk of Heart Disease

Consuming too many sugary foods and beverages canlead to high blood pressureand increase chronic inflammation - both of which can lead to heart disease. Also, high sugar is linked to weight gain and obesity which in turn is also linked to diabetes and fatty liver disease. 

So, a patient with all these diseases may have an alarmingly high risk of heart attack and stroke.

This is evident from the American Heart Association’s report which suggests that at least 68% of people aged 65 or older with diabetes also have heart disease. 

5. Mental Health Problems

Eating too much sugar can have anegative impact on one's mental health. Research has found that many people with weight problems also struggle with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. 

More women than men seem to be affected by depression as a result of weight gain. 

A study that compared women's sugar intake found that those who had more added sugar in their diets weremore likely to suffer from depression than those who consumed less sugar.

6. Looking Older Sooner

Who would have guessed? If you eat a lot of sugary foods you may end up looking older way before your twin who consumes less sugar. 

This phenomenon has to do with something called Advanced Glycation End-products or AGEs. 

AGEs can come from foods cooked at high temperatures and can also form inside our bodies when we consumea lot of sugary foods.Research has found that AGEs reduce skin elasticity, accumulate pigments, and produce wrinkles among other detrimental effects.

7. Sugar Speeds up the Aging Process

Sadly, too much sugar in your diet doesn't just make you look old before your time -  it makes you older faster!

This action has to do with telomeres. Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes. They protect the integrity of our genetic material, helping to preserve stable and accurate cell division.

These important bits shorten as we get older, resulting in numerous health implications. Older people with shorter telomeres face a threefold to eightfold higher risk of succumbing to heart-related and infectious diseases, respectively.

Certain factorsincrease the rate of telomere shortening, such as smoking, exposure to pollution, a lack of physical activity, obesity, stress, and an unhealthy diet, andexcessive sugar consumption.

8. Sugar Plays Havoc with Your Energy Levels

A sugary bun or a chocolate chip cookie can quickly spike your blood sugar and insulin levels, making you feel full of energy. However, these foods digest fast, insulin levels drop and you quickly feel like a washed-out rag, raving about your next sugary pick-me-up.

These foods are stripped of fiber, protein, and fat so their fast digestion leads to a brief energy boost. But as stated before, these ultimately result in a sharp drop in blood sugar. 

That's when everything and everyone starts looking fuzzy and you can't seem to get anything done.

The fact that you feel less alert after carbohydrate consumption is confirmed by research which found thateating carbohydrates lowers alertness within 60 min after consumption and increases fatigue within 30 minutes post-consumption.

9. Sugar Can Be Devastating for Your Brain

The brain consists of nerve cells that keep the body functioning. To do this, the brain uses glucose; it is the organ in the body that requires the most glucose to function properly. Both high and low blood sugar levels candamage nerves and blood vessels in the brain.

This can cause problems with memory and learning, and eventually lead to serious conditions likeAlzheimer’s disease.

Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, is bad for the brain. It damages blood vessels that must take oxygen-rich blood to the brain. When the vessels are damaged, the brain doesn't receive enough oxygen, and brain cells begin to die - leading to problems with memory and thinking.

10. Linked to Acne

Eating refined carbohydrate foods like pastries that quickly raise blood sugar levels, might be linked to acne. These foods raise blood sugar levels fast, leading to the increase of insulin in the blood and increasingsecretion of androgens - male hormones. Increased androgen levels are linked to the development of acne. 

A large research study found that the consumption ofsugary beverages, milk, and fatty & sugary products was associated with current acne in adults.

11. Dental Health is Negatively Affected

We all know that sugar causes cavities, and that's no big deal, right? You just go to the dentist to have it fixed. 

Not so fast!

The sugar you eat is food for the bacteria in your mouth – the more sugar, the more bacteria; the more bacteria, the more acidity in your mouth. This acidic environment eats away at the tooth enamel, making your teeth weak and even more susceptible to cavities. 

So as you get older, you may end up losing your tooth one after the other - which is no fun.

Tips to Cut Down Processed Sugar

If you think that you can eliminate sugar from your diet by not putting sugar in your tea and coffee, and skipping soda drinks, candy, desserts, cookies, cakes, and all things sweet, you are in for a nasty surprise. 

Sugar is not only to be found in these obvious food sources; the sweet treat hides in all sorts of food. 

Here are foods where sugar is hiding and may be good places to start by trying to eliminate or reduce your intake of these foods:

  • Ketchup
  • Salad dressing
  • Granola bars
  • Flavored teas
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Pasta and other sauces 
  • Energy drinks
  • Pickles and chutneys

There are resources online where you can verify the amount of sugar in these foods.

Some Sensible Tips to Reduce Your Sugar Intake

1. Adopt the Right Attitude

It is not advisable to exclude sugar completely from your diet as it is simply not sustainable in the long run. 

If you are serious about reducing the amount of sugar you take in, you have to understand that this decision cannot involve a crash diet. 

Crash diets are not healthy, and cutting out sugar completely is not sustainable.

So what should you do? 

Realize that you will have to make a lifestyle change, one that limits your sugar intake for the rest of your life. That's what a lifestyle change is – a life-long commitment. 

2. Learn to Read Food Labels

Since most of the sugar in our food comes from sugar added by manufacturers, you need to know how much sugar you're getting in when you buy any of your favorite foods. Here’s a dietitian-approved food label reading hack- under the DV (daily value) list on the food label it will give you a percent. This is the percent of the daily recommended intake of a certain food that is taken up by 1 serving of that food product. 

As a rule of thumb, 5% or lower means that food is low, and 20% or higher means that food is high in that ingredient. Try to find foods with sugar DV that are closer to 5 and not 20. 

But it's not good enough to just read the labels, you also need to start cutting out some of these foods listed below, otherwise, you'll never reach your sugar goals.

3. Start by Cutting out Sodas

If you are in the habit of drinking sodas, stopping the habit may help you to lose weight. The list of sugar-sweetened drinks available to the American population is as long as your arm. In addition to soda drinks, the list includes fruit juice, fruit-flavored juice, sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened tea and coffee drinks. 

Cutting out at least one of these per day, to begin with, can put you on the right path.

4. Avoid the Obvious Culprits

While it's true that sugars are hidden in some foods as we discussed earlier, some foods are obviously high in sugar like candies, pastries, pancakes, cookies, chocolate, etc. 

Cut these out or at least aim to seriously reduce the amount of this food you eat. These foods have very little nutritional value and no fiber. That’s why these digest fast - leaving you hungry for more. 

5. Eat Whole Foods

Whole foods such as unrefined rice, beans, whole meal pasta, vegetables, beans, and fruit are highly nutritious and satisfying. In addition, they contain fiber, which slows down digestion, making you feel full and satisfied without eating huge amounts of food.

Adding fiber to your diet will increase your satiation which will further reduce sugar cravings. Apart from whole foods, you can increase your daily fiber intake throughfiber powders.  

6. Skip the Breakfast Cereals

This may come as a shock to many Americans who grew up on a staple of Kellogg's Fruit Loops, Rice Krispies, or some similar sugared breakfast cereal. Some of these breakfast cereals aremore sugar than a healthy treat!

Instead of instant cereal, try making oatmeal from scratch. It barely takes five minutes, and you can also sweeten these with raisins or chopped dates. 

Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts is also a great alternative.

7. Combat Hunger with Food High in Protein and Fat

People have been advised to eat food low in fat for years now and it has done nothing to combat obesity. This may be because foods like low-fat yogurt contain a lot of sugar and the lack of fat leaves you still hungry. 

Full-fat yogurt and cheese are more satisfying and won't leave you hungry for more.

Similarly, food high in protein also combats hunger, leaving you feeling full for longer. One study in overweight and obese men foundconsuming frequent, high-protein meals led to the men feeling full throughout the day and less likely to snack late at night.

To include more protein in your diet, stock up on foods like cheese, nuts, legumes, meat, fish, and eggs. Additionally, you can take the recommendedamount of protein powders.

8. Choose Fiber-rich Foods to Combat Your Sugar Cravings

Food high in dietary fiber can help to reduce sugar cravings. High-fiber foods, such as nuts, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can slow down digestion and the absorption of sugar so blood sugar levels don't spike suddenly. 

Because the blood sugar levels stay stable, you don't experience a craving for sugar. 

So, to help you avoid sugar cravings, invest in a diet rich in whole foods, full of nutrients, healthy fats, protein, and fiber.

Surely, all this may sound like a lot of recommendations to follow up on. A good idea is to consult a nutritionist to plan your meals. Additionally, you can sign uphere for a suitable diet plan. 

Benefits of Getting Rid of Processed Sugar

If you can manage to get rid of processed sugar in your diet, your health will benefit greatly. You 

  • Will be able to control your weight better and avoid obesity
  • Reduce inflammation in your body
  • Improve your heart health
  • Reduce your risk of diabetes
  • Won't have sugar cravings
  • Avoid fatty liver disease 
  • Have more energy
  • Have healthy teeth
  • Be able to focus better
  • Enjoy healthier skin

Final Thoughts

Excessive sugar can be at the root of many health problems. Consuming too much-added sugar puts you at risk for various health conditions. Getting rid of processed sugar in your diet will require commitment and a lifestyle change. 

Bottom line? 

Even though some of our favorite foods have added sugars, cutting back to withina healthy limit of <10% a day can lead to health benefits.

Processed sugar has absolutely no nutritional value – it is not food. You can do without it entirely.