Sugar has a sneaky way of making it into our food, and if we’re not careful, too much of it in any form can lead to a variety of health issues. Too much sugar can not only impact our waistline, but it can also have a negative impact on our blood sugar, energy, mood, gut health and even worse — can cause you to have more cravings. According to data from the USDA, the average American consumes 90 pounds of sugar per year (that’s equals 1.7 per pounds per week and 3.9 ounces or 110 grams per day).
When we overconsume sugar, the result leaves our body scrambling on what to do with the excess and will either look to our muscles or liver for help. If you happen to be fresh off a workout and burned a lot of sugar from your muscles or liver in the form of glycogen, your body will try to store the sugar you’ve just consumed in your muscles or liver. When these two options simply can’t handle the excess sugar, the overload can have significant consequences to our health:
Inflammation: Higher-than-necessary amounts of sugar in the bloodstream cause damage to soft tissues in the body, which triggers cholesterol production, hardening of arterial walls, and a heightened immune response. Tracking (and limiting) sugar can reduce internal stress in the body so it can shift its restorative energies to maintaining resilience of life’s other stressors (or, even better, to improving health or performance).
Fat Storage: Consuming sugary, high-glycemic foods stimulate more insulin production, which can cause the body to store fat rather that use it. Tracking (and limiting) grams of sugar can keep your body in a state of fat-burning rather than fat-storing throughout the day.
Cardiovascular Risk: Evidence shows that diets high in sugar lead to inflammation, obesity and high triglycerides, all of which are risk factors for heart disease. A study including over 30,000 people found that individuals who consumed 17–21% of calories from added sugar had a 38% greater risk of dying from heart disease in comparison to those who consumed only 8% of calories from added sugars.
Diabetes: High-sugar diets can lead to insulin resistance, a hormone pattern that significantly elevates the risk of developing Type II Diabetes.
Gut Issues: Sugar may also irritate our gut health in a few ways. When too much sugar is present in the digestive tract, it can cause an imbalance in gut microbiome – as it may fuel the growth of potentially harmful bacteria species and limit the health of beneficial flora. The shift in microbial balance, coupled with the potential tissue inflammation seen in high-sugar diets are a recipe for sub-optimal digestive health.
Signs you’re consuming too much
Even in our day-to-day, overconsuming sugar can lead to disruptive symptoms that can be easy to overlook or be considered as “normal” things many of us simply live with. If you’re experiencing any of the below, if could be an indication you’re consuming too much sugar:
Caffeine cravings: More often than not, clients who are dependent on 2-3 cups of coffee tend to be repeat offenders throughout the day with soda (diet or regular), coffee shop cocktails and energy drinks. Your body fighting the afternoon nap session is not just a sign that you’re tired. It may be that your diet needs a break from sweets (especially hidden ones). When you consume sugar, it is quickly digested and raises blood sugars rapidly before they plummet. This energy crash leaves your body in distress and in need of insta-energy. Enter: caffeine (or craving for more sugar). First off, down a glass or two of water first, as this will be your biggest energy boost. If you still need a pick-me-up, tea could be a great option without the repercussions later. Or, you might just need some fresh air!
Disrupted sleep: Did you know your bedtime snack and/or ‘nightcap’ may be to blame for your midnight trip to the bathroom? When we eat snacks before bed (especially ones not balanced out with protein and/or healthy fats), our low blood sugars are felt during the night and our body’s response is to correct it. So while you may be thinking it is your bladder waking you, it’s may be that blood sugar rollercoaster ride you’re on. Better nighttime snacks to help curb the wake-up calls could be berries and heavy cream, cheese and olives, or veggies with hummus or guacamole.
Skin issues: How your skin displays your internal health can appear in a variety of ways: rashes, itchy skin, eczema, psoriasis, hives, acne, etc. Rather than stopping by the beauty counter or healthcare aisle for your next remedy, visit your grocery store instead. Opting for omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, antioxidants, and ample water intake in addition to nixing your sugar intake, may be just your ticket to relieved complexion.
Never-ending sweet tooth: This may be the typical, “I crave sweets ALL day!” Or maybe you’ve noticed lately that your taste-buds don’t seem to be working on all cylinders, and foods that once were loaded with flavor just taste so-so now.This overexposure leads to increased cravings and needing more sugar to taste ‘sweet.’
Poor Immunity: Excess sugar intake may actually depress your immune system, and therefore make you more susceptible to colds, bacteria and viruses. As we know, excess sugar increases inflammation in our body. Our immune system’s first response is to “put out the fire” and handle the inflammation, rather than fight off the cold.
Dulled sense of taste: The Standard American Diet is so prevalently saturated with added sugars – sugars that are not naturally occurring (such as those in fruits, vegetables and dairy) – that our taste buds now require obscene amounts to even detect sweetness. Try this taste test. Eat some real dark chocolate (at least 80-85% cocoa, or cacao). If you can’t stand the taste or find it bitter, you’ve definitely got diluted taste buds.
Unexpected places you’ll find sugar
If you aren’t eating something in its natural form, chances are it has sugar added to it. In fact, USDA guidelines have opened the door for food companies to have unprecedented amounts of sugars in their foods. From candy and soda to soups, condiments, and cereal – sugar is added to the majority of the 40,000 plus food items in the average grocery store. When it comes to areas we tend to overindulge, there are a few top-offenders to be mindful of:
Any beverage that isn’t water: While coffee can definitely be a top sugar offender due to the flavor shots and creamers, we can’t dismiss other sugar-sweetened drinks such as iced tea, fruit juices or sports drinks. While newer labeling may fool you into thinking there are newer and healthier versions of these products, the back of the label can tell you otherwise. Another sneaky sugar culprit is happy hour as each glass of wine or cocktail can quickly push you over daily recommendations. If you’re going out for drinks, so be sure to pick your indulgences wisely and give yourself a limit.
Grab ‘n’ go snacks: Whether in the office breakroom, store shelf or in some cases the vending machine, many snack options can appear to be healthy but are actually packed with sugar. Using protein bars as an example, while some bars are healthier than others, many that are on the market pack around 30 grams of sugar. Dry-roasted nuts or seeds, low-sugar jerky, protein shakes, olives, or cheese are great low/no-sugar options to keep handy for when hunger strikes.
“Healthier” food alternatives: When choosing products like almond milk vs. a dairy-based milk or a nut butter vs. a highly-processed peanut butter, be mindful that these types of products can be packed the sugar. For nut milks, choose the sugar-free options and be selective with your nut butters by checking the label for simple ingredient lists without added sugars. Also watch out for low-fat, calorie-controlled snack packs – when take the fat out of food, you almost always have to replace it with sugar to make it taste palatable.
What we should be aiming for
In order to maintain normal bodily functions, we need about 5 grams (or 1 teaspoon) of sugar dissolved into our blood stream. As a daily target, aim for less than 5% of your consumed calories to be from sugar. That means on a 2,000-calorie day, sugar consumption should be 25 grams (or 6 teaspoons).
Reducing sugar intake
Eat a high-protein breakfast: What does a modified sugar diet look like? Start off with a meal rich in protein, which will have a positive influence on your blood sugar, help reduce cravings and help balance your hunger and satiety hormones.
Snack on fat: It’s a great source of energy that doesn’t really affect blood sugar balance and also satisfies hunger for hours. Olives, avocado, cheese, or nuts are great options.
Find a fiber that fills you up: Fill up on fiber from vegetables or other water-rich foods – they do a fantastic job slowing the rise in blood sugar and increasing satiety.
Sprinkle in a little salt: Add a little salt to those unprocessed foods you’re incorporating – when we reduce our sugar intake, our body can lose quite a bit of fluid and sodium, making us feel fatigued – a sprinkle of sea salt on steamed or roasted fresh veggies helps us restore hydration and energy!
Go dark: Go dark – chocolate excites some of the same receptors in the brain that sugar does. Look for 80% cocoa content or higher (if you prefer).
Nixing your sugar cravings
Get adequate sleep: Aim for at least 7-8 hours each night. Inadequate sleep can disrupt normal blood sugar regulation. This means your body is even more apt to add that sugary intake directly to your midsection.
Stay hydrated: Are you hydrated? Many Americans are not and by the time actual thirst sets in, we can often mistake it for hunger and reach for the nearest cupcake. Naturally, if we’re using sugar in an inadvertent attempt to resolve physiological thirst, our “cravings” will not be satiated.
If you’re at all hungry, eat a meal: If your appetite is not satisfied by a snack, you may need to eat a full, balanced meal or perhaps work on making your other meals more substantial to help you feel satisfied enough to avoid reaching for the sweets.
If you have questions about your sugar intake or want to put together a tailored plan to help you cut down on sugar, reach out to our team of Life Time Registered Dietitians to get started.
– Anika Christ, Registered Dietitian and Life Time Weight Loss Director of Digital Programming & Events
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.