25 Ways Sugar is Making You Sick

From depression to heart disease, the excess sugar in your diet can wreak havoc on your health.

What happens when you eat too much sugar - woman clutching heart
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What Happens When You Eat Too Much Sugar

Sugar hurts your heart

Researchers at Harvard University studied thousands of American adults over the course of 15 years and found those who consumed 25 percent or more of their daily calories from sugar were, in that time, more than twice as likely to die from heart disease as those whose diets included less than 10 percent of added sugar a day. (The worst offenders? Sweetened beverages, grain-based treats, fruit drinks and dairy desserts.)

What happens when you eat too much sugar - man chugging orange juice
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“No sugar added” doesn’t mean “healthy”

If the label says “100 percent juice,” don’t chug with abandon. Even if the drink has no added sweeteners, its naturally occurring sugars are far more concentrated than you’d find in a piece of fruit. And unlike an orange or apple, which are high in fibre, juice offers empty calories and is of minimal nutritional value.

Here’s how to read nutrition labels like a dietitian.

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Excess sugar is linked to dementia

In 2018, researchers at the University of Bath found a molecular link between sugary diets and early Alzheimer’s. The scientists discovered that glycation—a reaction through which glucose affects cells—causes damage to an important enzyme that’s involved in the reduction of abnormal protein buildup in the brain, which is characteristic of the disease.

Learn how to spot the early signs of dementia.

What happens when you eat too much sugar - little boy with birthday cake
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Sugar won’t make kids hyper… It’s worse than that

A meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that sugar does not affect children’s behaviour. “It may simply be the environment where certain food is being served (i.e., parties) that causes children to be more excitable,” says Andrea D’Ambrosio, a registered dietitian in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. But it does spike blood pressure and cholesterol. One 2016 study in the journal Obesity showed that reducing young subjects’ sugar consumption for just nine days led to immediate improvements in those areas, as well as blood sugar levels.

Avocado smoothie
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Stealth sugar stows away in snacks

These five convenience foods may appear to be healthier choices, but they often contain startlingly large amounts of the sweet stuff. Consider homemade alternatives instead:

  • Smoothies: On average, a medium (473mL) store-bought smoothie contains between 30 and 80 grams of sugar. Instead: Make your own with non-fat milk, half a banana, frozen berries and a sprinkle of omega-3-rich flaxseeds, then add a drop of vanilla extract to bring out the natural sweetness of the milk. (These healthy smoothie recipes are a great place to start.)
  • Trail mix: Conventional wisdom suggests stashing trail mix in your car for a healthy snack on the go, but a quarter cup of a commercial variety can contain 16 or more grams of sugar. Instead: Make your own mix and go heavy on the protein-rich nuts and seeds, lighter on the dried fruit (and nix the chocolate chips altogether).
  • Yogurt: A 118mL serving of fruit-flavoured yogurt can contain 13 grams of sugar. If you top it with a quarter cup of store-bought granola, you’re downing another six grams. Instead: Reach for plain Greek yogurt and add your own fresh fruit and nuts. (Greek yogurt offers more protein than the fruity varieties and only a third of the sugar per half-cup serving.)
  • Oatmeal: Flavoured oatmeal packets may seem like a healthy strategy for busy mornings, but they can contain as many as 12 grams of sugar per serving. (Heaping on another tablespoon of brown sugar adds an extra 12 grams.) Instead: Take the 10 minutes required to cook your own quick oats and add a quarter cup of diced apple and a dash of cinnamon.
  • Salad dressing: Grabbing a salad for lunch may seem like a savvy dietary choice, but it’s important to know that some bottled dressings, such as French and raspberry vinaigrette, often have four or more grams of sugar per two-tablespoon serving. Instead: Opt for a drizzle of oil and vinegar over your salad.

Don’t miss our ultimate guide to healthy grocery shopping.

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You’re probably eating twice as much sugar as you should

The average Canadian eats the equivalent of 20 bags of sugar in a year—without realizing it. Heart and Stroke recommends that sugar comprise only 10 percent of an adult’s daily calories, which means each of us should be consuming only 48 grams—slightly more than a bag of Skittles—of added sugar per day, rather than the 100 grams we currently ingest.

Find out the worst foods for your heart.

What happens when you eat too much sugar - man craving chocolate
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Experts fear sugar may kill you sooner

Laura A. Schmidt, a professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, worries about all the damage sugar is doing to our bodies. That’s why she became lead investigator for UCSF’s SugarScience research site, developed as an “authoritative source for the scientific evidence about sugar and its impact on health.” Here, she explains some of her concerns:

Reader’s Digest Canada: With all the negative health news about sugar, should we switch to something else?

Schmidt: The evidence is mounting against sucralose, saccharine and aspartame. Some research shows artificial sweeteners damage the microbiome in the gut. They’re also associated with weight gain and glucose intolerance, the two things people use them to prevent. Based on what we know, I wouldn’t consume those products—or give them to my kids.

How do you keep added sugar from seeping into your own diet?

I just don’t have it around the house. Take all that stuff out of your environment. Once you start cutting back, you’ll lose your sweet tooth. It’s a palate phenomenon, and it doesn’t take long. You’ll notice that you can suddenly taste the natural sweetness in unprocessed food, and you’ll start to find processed products cloying and unpleasant.

Discover the fascinating science behind your chocolate craving.

Old fashioned cocktails
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Sugar is as bad for your liver as alcohol

Unlike other forms of sugar, fructose, which occurs naturally in fruit, is processed in the liver. We’re consuming too much of it, thanks to our penchant for foods with added sweeteners, and it’s leading to a rise in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). One visible red flag: a sugar belly (yes, like a beer belly). Why? The liver breaks down excess fructose into fat globules that travel through the bloodstream and lodge around your midsection and internal organs. And, like the liver damage caused by alcohol, NAFLD causes inflammation and scarring. “It is one of the leading causes of liver transplants,” Schmidt says.

Read up on what booze really does to your body.

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“Healthier” sweeteners are no better for you

Those trying to cut down on sugar may be drawn to studies that tout the healing power of honey or the antioxidant benefits of maple syrup. Ignore them, says D’Ambrosio. “All sugar provides energy in the form of calories but it doesn’t add a significant amount of other nutrients,” she says. “Sugar is sugar, so it’s best used in moderation no matter what form it takes.”

Find out how to make your daily coffee habit healthier.

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Teen boys are the biggest sugar enthusiasts

The average Canadian teenage boy is consuming 172 grams of sugar per day, according to the Canadian Community Health Survey. (The leading culprit among kids aged 9 to 18? The added sugars in pop.) Excess sugar is linked to weight gain, Type 2 diabetes, cavities and high cholesterol in children, while obesity rates for young people have nearly tripled in the last 30 years, according to the Government of Canada.

Check out the latest research on how to beat diabetes.

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Cancer cells are sugar fiends

New research from the University of Texas at Dallas shows a link between sugar and squamous cell carcinoma, which is hard to treat and accounts for a quarter of all lung cancers. The study also found that four other types of squamous cell cancer also consume a lot of sugar.

These cancer research breakthroughs are giving hope for the future.

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Your pop is literally making you older

You age an additional 4.6 years if you drink a 591mL sugary beverage every day. (The effect is comparable to that of being a regular smoker.)

Here’s expert advice on how to live to 100—and love it.

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Sugar may keep us up at night

A 2016 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine shows eating more sugar (along with less fibre and more saturated fat) is associated with lighter, more disrupted and less restorative sleep.

Here’s more expert advice on how get a good night’s sleep.

Red Bull energy drinks
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We’re still drinking too much liquid sugar

Good news: we’re drinking less pop than we were a decade ago. Bad news: we’ve replaced it with options that may be just as unhealthy, says Amanda Nash, a dietitian with Heart and Stroke in Winnipeg. A 2017 report from the University of Waterloo found sales of energy drinks increased by 638 percent in the 12 years prior, while sales of specialty coffees increased by 579 percent. Energy drinks contain 84 grams of sugar, sports drinks contain about 40 grams, and your average flavoured latte comes in at around 36 grams.

Find out what happens when you start drinking eight glasses of water a day.

What happens when you eat too much sugar - measuring cholesterol
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Sugar messes with our cholesterol

A 2010 study of 8,495 Americans over 18 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that as subjects’ added-sugar intake went up, their levels of HDL (good cholesterol) dropped, increasing their risk for cardiovascular disease. The study also found that women in particular who ate more added sugar had higher levels of LDL density (bad cholesterol).

Experts say these are the worst foods for cholesterol.

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Most packaged foods contain added sugar

A Canadian Medical Association Journal study from 2016, which analyzed more than 40,000 packaged foods on the shelves of one of the nation’s biggest retailers, found added sugar in 66 percent of the items.

Find out the healthiest fruits you can buy.

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It’s bad for your BMI

Researchers from the University of Reading, the University of Cambridge and Arizona State University studied the sugar intake of 1,700 men and women aged 39 to 77 in Norfolk, U.K. According to a study published in 2015, they found that those who ate the most sugar were 54 percent more likely to be overweight (that is, have a BMI over 25)—and were also more likely to have underreported how much of the substance they consumed.

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Beware: you may be eating incognito sugar

Here are 10 sneaky sugar pseudonyms manufacturers use to fool you into thinking their food isn’t packed with the sweet stuff:

  • Amazake
  • Carob powder
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Maltose

Find out which groceries are worth buying organic.

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Sugar takes your breath away

Scientists have long suspected a link between sugar-sweetened beverages and asthma. After analyzing data from 146,990 adults in the U.S., they found that, sure enough, adults who downed at least two of these drinks a day were more likely to have respiratory issues.

Find out the worst foods for your brain.

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Sweets are worse than salt for hypertension

Normal blood pressure falls between 90/60 and 120/80. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology in 2010, a high-fructose diet can push your blood pressure over the threshold of 120/80, which is considered the upper end of normal. In a 2014 research review published in the BMJ Open Heart journal, medical experts argued that sugar intake may have the most dramatic effect on modulating blood pressure—and, in fact, could be more detrimental to heart health than sodium consumption.

On the other hand, these 20 foods may help lower blood pressure.

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Sugar can make you sad

Ending a bad day with a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s may make you feel worse in the long run. In 2015, Columbia University Medical Center researchers found post-menopausal women with diets high in added sugars and refined grains were at an increased risk of new-onset depression, while the risk decreased in subjects who ate more dietary fibre, whole grains, vegetables and unprocessed fruits.

Here are 12 healthy high fibre foods worth adding to your cart.

Woman getting dental exam at dentist office
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Sweet treats ruin your teeth…

Your childhood dentist was right—sugar causes cavities. Here’s how it happens:

  • You sip a sweet coffee shop beverage.
  • Bacteria in your mouth thrive on sugar, which provides them with energy.
  • Those micro-organisms multiply, creating a film of plaque on the surface of your teeth.
  • The plaque produces an acid that dissolves the minerals that make up the hard surface of your teeth.
  • The longer plaque builds up, the worse the damage. Tiny holes appear and expand until they become cavities.

Discover more secrets your dentist wants you to know.

What happens when you eat too much sugar - man with tooth pain
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…and make your gums bleed

Most kids grow up learning about the connection between candy and cavities. As it turns out, a high-sugar diet also inflames your gums and increases your risk of periodontal disease, based on a 2014 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (Signs of periodontal disease include bad breath, bleeding gums and sensitive teeth.)

Here are more sneaky reasons you’ve got bad breath.

One sugar risk is sugar addiction
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You might even be addicted

Though some researchers quibble with the idea that sugar is addictive, past studies, including a 2015 paper out of MIT, do show that the sweet stuff elevates levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which forms a key part of the brain’s reward and pleasure centres, in a way that’s remarkably similar to the effects of tobacco and morphine. “There’s growing evidence that sugar leads to cravings and withdrawal, which are the hallmarks of addictive disorders,” says Schmidt. “You can see the effects on an MRI.” Now, Australian researchers have discovered that drugs typically used to treat nicotine and cocaine addiction, such as varenicline, could be employed to help so-called sugar addicts kick their habits as well.

Now that you know what happens when you eat too much sugar, find out how salt is making you sick.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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