Fair to say there are plenty of diet diversions on the road to achieving your ideal physique and performance level. One of the most common and tempting being sugar. It’s everywhere these days and pretty damn moreish, so avoiding it, or even cutting down, can be seriously tough.
It’s controversial, but some researchers claim actually that sugar is even more addictive than it’s white, powdery, bad-boy cousin (no actual relation) cocaine.
So it may take almost as much strength as anything you need in the gym, but ultimately swerving most sweet treats is well worth it. Here’s a brief look at why too much sugar is bad for health.
What is sugar?
Sugar is a sweet-tasting carbohydrate, very common in our daily diet and there are a few different types. Simple sugars, or monosaccharides, include glucose, fructose and galactose.
What most of us automatically think of when we hear sugar though, is sucrose, sometimes called table sugar.
Drawn naturally from the sugar cane plant, sucrose is a disaccharide, naturally broken down to both glucose and fructose. It’s this which most often serves as sweetener for processed foods such as cakes, cookies, sweets, teas, coffees, fizzy drinks.
It pays to be aware of sugar levels because they play a vital role in how our bodies function. Of all its variations, glucose will be the main sugar in our systems. Most carbohydrates we consume will convert to glucose and be carried via our bloodstream to cells in the body.
Starch is another source of sugar. It’s a polysaccharide, meaning it breaks down upon digestion to glucose, amongst other things. Foods rich in starch are cereals like rice and wheat or vegetables such as potato.
In short, we take on sugar from three main sources
- Natural – fruits, vegetables, honey and dairy products.
- Digested – Through the breaking down of complex carbohydrates.
- Added – From biscuits, cereals, beverages, desserts, processed foods.
We’re never going to cut out sugar altogether, thanks to its close relationship with carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are an essential part of nutrition. A macronutrient which provides calories for the body’s various metabolic processes.. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65 percent of the total daily calories.
The same goes for fruit and veg. We all know how important those are to health and fitness, meaning a sizable fructose intake is inevitable.
However, there are limits to how much sugar we should be having daily and it’s when we start piling on extra problems can occur. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends reducing our intake of added sugars to less than 10% of the total energy intake. Ideally getting that as low as less than 5%.
Sugar is a concentrated source of calories, meaning a little contains a lot. Often these will be empty calories too, with no real nutritional benefit besides a short energy burst.
Notably the FDA suggests we keep our intake of additional sugars under 50 grams a day. While the American Heart Association (AHA) advises the max amount should be 150 calories/day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons) for men; and 100 calories/day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons) for women.
All this sort of begs the question, why? Just what’s so bad about sugar?
What are the risks?
Weight gain and obesity
Pretty simple really. We know from the WHO and others that too much sugary food may provide energy in the short term, but whatever we don’t burn off gets stored around the body as excess fat.
Go looking for a sugar rush too many times this process repeats, building up as weight gain and eventually obesity.
Diabetes and metabolic disease
High blood sugar stimulates the release of insulin, which regulates blood glucose back to healthy levels. Weight gain as a result of too much sugar though increases our insulin resistance.
Studies show that being overweight with high insulin resistance leaves us at major risk of type 2 diabetes. Not to mention other metabolic problems as a result of raised lipid levels in the blood.
Higher risk of heart problems
For a long time the blame for heart attacks and strokes was laid at fats door. We now know a lot of this was thanks to a booming sugar industry in the 1960s paying scientists to keep their white gold out of the bad books. Modern studies however aren’t so willing to turn a blind eye.
Evidence now shows causes inflammation, high triglyceride (lipid) levels, high blood glucose levels, and high blood pressure. All of these are factors which leave us open to heart disease. Too much sugar also has a link to atherosclerosis, where the arteries are clogged with fatty deposits.
We all know sugar is bad for our teeth, but perhaps few of us understand why. Basically bacteria in our mouths feeds on sugar and releases acids which strips our teeth of their minerals.
We’re talking more than just a few fillings here however. If left unchecked this bacteria may cause an infection in the gums, which may eventually spread to the blood triggering endocarditis (heart disease.)
A mix of some of the things we’ve mentioned so far – insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, and inflammation – all leave us at a higher risk of cancer.
Too much sugar will cause blood sugar levels and insulin to spike. This causes androgen secretion to rise, skin glands to become inflamed and produce more oil leading to acne.
That’s not all. More sugar than your body can handle speeds up the formation of Advanced Glycosylated End products (AGEs.) These play a key role in aging the skin by causing premature wrinkles for example. Our skin cells will also age faster.
Struggling immune system
In the same ways as bacteria feeds on glucose in the mouth damaging teeth, it does round the body too. That means if your blood has too much sugar in it bacteria can ride that overly sweet stream increasing our risk of infection in various places. Constantly guarding against this, naturally puts a strain on the immune system.
Reduced mental function.
Some studies have linked high sugar intake to dips in both cognition and mood. It results, they suggest, in poor memory and cognitive decline, leading to diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Sugar will also cause a sudden rise in blood glucose then a crash. This triggers stress hormones which attempt to push blood glucose back up. This stress response brings out anxiety, restlessness, tremors and irritability.
In children – arguably added sugar’s target market – too much has links with development of hyperactivity, lack of concentration, insomnia, anxiety, and poor performance. They also tend to have an increased tendency for alcohol and smoking abuse. Although the study used energy drinks which are also high in caffeine.
Disrupts nutrient balance
Our bodies need a certain amount of calories every day to function. We’ve already spoken about how sugar is basically empty calories, so if you fill up on sugar, other calories carrying nutritional value may be seen as not needed. This can contribute to a deficiency of many important vitamins and minerals.
With reasonable amounts of sugar our liver will break sucrose down to glucose and fructose and convert it to glycogen to be stored. If the organ swamps with sugar though, it turns the excess into fat which remains in the liver. A build-up of this fat can cause Non Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.
Buy sugar or bye sugar?
Sothere you go. Next time you’re being tempted by a dessert menu, cast your mind back to our little menu up there and maybe think twice.
Look obviously cutting added sugar out altogether is the best way to go, but the odd slice of cake or candy bar isn’t going to cause major problems.
If you can’t go full, cold sugarless turkey, then at least try and keep your intake low.