Is sugar toxic? It is when you consider the levels the average American swallows each year—a whopping 130 pounds of added sugars ingested annually. That's about 22 teaspoons a day, way over the max set by the American Heart Association in 2009. New science shows that this overload of sugar—often stemming from hard-to-detect hidden added sugars—is affecting your body in all sorts of strange ways. Check out these 11 weird things that sugar is doing to your body from Get Sugar Smart, a breakthrough plan brimming with reasons to rein in your sugar habit.
1. Sugar makes your organs fat. Sugar Stat: Fructose—a component of table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup—in added sugar damages your liver and triggers it to store fat more efficiently, and in weird places. Over time, a diet high in fructose could lead to globules of fat building up around your liver, a precursor to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, something rarely seen before 1980.
Sugar Smart Tip: Avoid drinks with lots of added sugars, including healthy-sounding smoothies. You're better off if the fructose in your diet comes from natural sources like fruit—the fiber helps blunt a sugar shock to your system. Plus, a piece of fruit likely has way less sugar than a commercial smoothie full of added sugars (some of them contain 54 grams, or about 13 ½ teaspoons worth of sugar!)
2. Sugar primes your body for diabetes. Sugar Stat: A PLoS One study found that for every extra 150 calories from sugar available per person each day, diabetes prevalence rises by 1.1 percent.
Sugar Smart Tip: It's easy to recommend giving up sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, but the truth is that accounts for just one-third of your added sugar intake. You have to go further, really honing in on labels. Much of the hidden sugars hide out under your own roof, in unassuming places like ketchup, frozen dinners, beef jerky, and bread, and any of these other 12 sources of sneaky sugar.
3. Sugar hammers your heart. Sugar Stat: You might expect sugar-curbing recommendations from the American Diabetes Association, thanks to sugar's clear impact on type 2 diabetes. But the truth is heart disease and diabetes are intricately related: Heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 causes of death among people with type 2 diabetes, accounting for 65 percent of those deaths, and the scary link between sugar and high blood pressure means that sugar is one of the biggest heart-damaging culprits.
Sugar Smart Tip: Don't exceed the American Heart Association's recommended sugar levels, which are 5 teaspoons for women (20 grams); 9 teaspoons for men (36 grams); and 3 teaspoons (12 grams) for children. For reference, a can of soda generally contains up to 12 grams of sugar; a single slice of whole wheat bread contains up to 2 teaspoons of added sugars.
4. Sugar creates tense blood vessels. Sugar Stat: Excess added sugars cause excess insulin in the bloodstream, which takes its toll on your body's circulatory highway system, your arteries. Chronic high insulin levels cause the smooth muscle cells around each blood vessel to grow faster than normal, according to The Sugar Smart Diet. This causes tense artery walls, something that puts you on the path to high blood pressure, and ultimately, makes a stroke or heart attack more likely.
Sugar Smart Tip: Don't be tricked by sugar-loaded processed "whole grain" products. To create whole grain flour, wheat kernels are basically pulverized to dust, which when eaten causes glucose spikes in our bodies similar to eating table sugar, white flour, or high-fructose corn syrup! "For instance, the kind of whole wheat bread typically used for sandwiches and white bread are digested at about the same rate and cause about the same rise in blood glucose levels, and therefore require the same amount of insulin to clear the bloodstream of glucose,"says Sugar Smart Diet author Anne Alexander.
5. Sugar promotes cholesterol chaos. Sugar Stat: There is an unsettling connection between sugar and cholesterol, as well. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, after excluding people with high cholesterol and/or diabetes and people who were excessively overweight, those who ate the highest levels of added sugars experienced the biggest spike in bad cholesterol levels and dangerous triglyceride blood fats, and the lowest good (HDL) cholesterol levels. One theory? Sugar overload could spark your liver to churn out more bad cholesterol while also inhibiting your body's ability to clear it out.
Sugar Smart Tip: Eat a protein-rich breakfast. Skipping breakfast makes you 4.5 times more likely to become obese. Eating breakfast also helps keep your blood sugar levels more favorable. An added perk? When overweight women choose protein-rich eggs over a bagel, they naturally eat about 160 fewer calories during the subsequent lunch. (We recommend eggs from pastured hens that also eat organic grain.)
6. It leads to type 3 diabetes. Sugar Stat: Brown University neuropathologist Suzanne de la Monte, MD, coined the term type 3 diabetes after her team was the first to discover the links between insulin resistance and high-fat diets and Alzheimer's disease. In fact, her work suggests Alzheimer's is a metabolic disease, one in which the brain's ability to use glucose and produce energy is damaged. To paraphrase, the link between sugar and Alzheimer's is like having diabetes in the brain.
Sugar Smart Tip: There are at least 38 names for sugar. Check labels; ingredients that end in –ose are sugar, and so is anything with sugar or syrup after the name. Don't overindulge in sugary, fatty foods—that seems to be what sets off Alzheimer's-like symptoms in rat studies.
7. Sugar turns you into a junkie. Sugar Stat: Much like street drugs, sugar triggers the release of chemicals that set off our brain's pleasure center, in this case opioids and dopamine. And as they do with street drugs, people develop a tolerance for sugar, meaning they need more sugar for a feel-good "fix." In rat studies looking at sugar addiction, the animals binge on the sweet stuff, and they experience chattering teeth, tremors, shakes, and anxiety when it's taken away.
Sugar Smart Tip: Andrew Weil, MD, urges people to be patient as they embark on a diet that cuts added sugars. In your effort to cure a sugar addiction, Weil says it usually takes about a week for the taste buds to habituate to a lower overall level of sweetness in the diet. After that, foods you used to love may seem sickeningly sweet.
8. Sugar turns you into a ravenous animal. Sugar Stat: Sugar. Makes. You. Feel. Famished. It's no wonder why you're still hungry after you eat sugar. Emerging research suggests regularly eating too much sugar scrambles your body's ability to tell your brain you're full. Carrying a few extra pounds and living with type 2 diabetes can throw off your body's ability to properly put off leptin hormones. Leptin's job is to say, "I'm full! Now stop eating!" Fructose also appears to play badly with leptin; eating a high-fructose diet means your body feels hungry, even when you're overeating!
Sugar Smart Tip: Instead of reaching for a standard chocolate bar, instead opt for a bit of organic chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao. When you feel a sugar craving coming on, walk for 15 minutes. Researchers found a 15-minute walk can curb cravings for a sugar-laden chocolate bar by 12 percent! Whatever you do, don't just sit there—that will actually increase your sugar cravings!
9. Sugar makes you an energy-starved zombie. Sugar Stat: You know the feeling. You grab a chocolate candy bar, and with it, get that brief jolt of energy. (Soon to be replaced by unrelenting fatigue.) Science shows it takes just 30 minutes or less to go from a sugar rush to a full-on sugar crash. This sugar spike-and-crash sets you up to want more sugar—a vicious cycle. To add insult to injury, The Sugar Smart Diet points out that sugar also triggers the release of serotonin, a sleep regulator. So much for an energy bump!
Sugar Smart Tip: Once you rid your life of the blatant sugars, try using some of these hidden-sugar-lowering swaps:
Choose Trader Joe's Gluten-Free Rolled Oats (½ cup uncooked = 150 calories, 1 gram sugar) in lieu of Quaker Instant Oatmeal Maple & Brown Sugar (1 packet = 160 calories, 12 grams sugar).
10. Sugar turns your smile upside down. Sugar Stat: We might reach for sugar to feel better, but we're getting the opposite effect in the end. A study published in Public Helath Journal followed nearly 9,000 people to study the link between depression and eating sugary sweets and fast food. After six years, those who ate the most junk faced a nearly 40 percent greater risk of developing depression, compared to those who shunned junk food the most. In people with insulin resistance, it appears the brain releases lower levels of feel-good dopamine.
Sugar Smart Tip: Different stages of the 32-day Sugar Smart Diet call for different sugar-curbing measures. The goal isn't to completely deprive you of added sugars, just to get your cravings under control so you can develop a healthy (weight-curbing) relationship with the sweet treat. Here are some tips from Day 3 of the plan:
If you're an ice-cream addict, today and tomorrow, eat one serving and then give away or throw away the carton. Then, instead of keeping a stocked-up freezer at home, make it a point to drive out to a local ice cream shop to get it. After that, put in place stricter guidelines, like you can only do this on Fridays and Saturdays.
If you're a sucker for soda or juice, try this: Sip the full-sugar variety today, but in a smaller bottle or can. Tomorrow or the day after, swap every other serving with ice water or seltzer water with a twist of lime.
If you're a dessert lover: Have your regular dessert today, but tomorrow opt for a fruit-based dessert like a baked apple or poached pear. The day after, step down to raw fruit, splurging on the varieties you like most, say, mangoes, berries, or purple or red grapes.
11. Sugar wrecks your face. Sugar Stat: Sugar in your bloodstream attaches to proteins to form harmful new molecules called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. These unwanted invaders attack nearby proteins, damaging them, including protein fibers in collagen and elastin, the components that keep your skin firm and elastic. The result of too much sugar? Dry, brittle protein fibers that are one of the biggest causes of wrinkles and saggy skin. It's exactly that sugar that kills your healthy skin and damages your face. There's more! AGEs promote the growth of fragile collagen and deactivate your body's natural antioxidant enzymes. This opens the door to more sun damage, which, as we all know, also damages and ages your skin.
Sugar Smart Tip: Beware of natural sweeteners, too. Agave products boast a higher fructose content than high-fructose corn syrup! For a sweet treat, use up to a teaspoon of honey no more than once a day.
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