Whether you have a sweet tooth or not so much, sugar in some form is added to almost every packaged food you buy. You are probably getting more sugar – even too much sugar – without even knowing it. The question is: how much sugar is too much?
Refined sugar (and its substitutes) is the bane of human existence, causing all sorts of illness, disease, and general malaise. A packaged food may not say “sugar” in the list of ingredients but it may be called by something else, like:
- Corn syrup/sweetener
- Evaporated cane juice
- High fructose corn syrup
- Hydrolyzed starch
- Malt syrup
- Rice Syrup
With all these sources of sugar, how do you know how much sugar is too much? If you experience the symptoms below, it’s high time you cut out sweets from your diet.
1. Cravings for Sugar/Carbs
Sugar is addictive. It’s as addictive as cocaine and its effects are similar. Sugar stimulates the production of dopamine, a pleasure hormone. Without even thinking about it, we may crave sweets and simple carbohydrates to give ourselves a “fix”. And, like other addictions, the body builds up a tolerance for sugar so the more you eat, the more you want—even if you’re not hungry. (1)
“The theory is formulated that intermittent, excessive intake of sugar can have dopaminergic, cholinergic and opioid effects that are similar to psychostimulants and opiates, albeit smaller in magnitude. The overall effect of these neurochemical adaptations is mild, but well-defined, dependency,” writes a study published in Neuroscience Biobehavioral Reviews. (2)
See also: Reversing diabetes Type-2
2. Lack of Energy and Tiredness
Orexins are a type of neuropeptide (an amino acid chain that forms protein in the brain). These neurotransmitters in the hypothalamus are responsible for the sleep/wake cycle, among other things. They are sensitive to sugars and respond to glucose levels in the body. (3) Even small increases in blood glucose inhibit orexins’ transmission of neural signals, thereby inducing a sleep state. (4)
So while you experience a sugar “high” shortly after eating/drinking, the “crash” that follows is how you experience the shut-down of neurotransmitters: you feel tired.
3. Weight Gain
Excess sugar consumption makes you fat. Of course, there are other factors such as activity level and metabolic rate that come into play, but the body burns sugar first for energy. What it can’t immediately use, it stores for when you need it—as fat.
In addition, eating too much sugar makes you overeat by suppressing the hormone leptin, which tells the body when to stop eating. If you feel tired and lethargic from consuming sugar, you’re less likely to exercise, too.
A rise in blood glucose stimulates insulin production to get it back down to normal levels. Insulin decreases blood sugar levels: when it fluctuates or gets too low, your body thinks it needs more fuel. So you eat even when you don’t really need to. (5)
On the other hand, proteins keep us active and awake. Eating protein stimulates orexins, which make you feel alert and promote active metabolism to burn calories. (6)
4. Frequent Cold and Flu
Too much sugar depresses the immune system. That’s because glucose reduces the activity of white blood cells, which are responsible for killing pathogens like viruses. (7)
Eating too much sugar on a regular basis makes us more susceptible to whatever contagion may be floating around because our bodies are less able to fight it.
Read more: foods to avoid with diabetes
5. Dull Taste Buds
Many people define a sweet taste as pleasant. Our tongue gets used to different flavors and sugar is no exception.
British researchers found that overweight people have a dulled sensitivity to tasting sweets and a liking for sweet food. In the same study, healthy and fit people who began to drink 2 soft drinks a day had dulled taste buds and sugar cravings after only 4 weeks.
“Our subconscious drive plays a huge role in what food choices we make, and as overweight people feel hungrier they are more affected by their subconscious drive for sweet high calorie foods,” wrote the study. (8)
Similarly, a 2016 study found that after a month of cutting down on dietary sugar, the experimental group found they were more sensitive to sweet flavors. Therefore, if you cut down on sugar, food will begin to taste sweeter without it. (9) Sweet!
6. Foggy Brain
A study published in the journal Neuroscience found that mice fed a diet “similar in composition to the typical diet of most industrialized western societies rich in saturated fat and refined sugar” experienced a reduced brain function in only 2 months.
That’s because high amounts of sugar affect proteins and neurotransmitters in the brain that are responsible for learning and memory. (10) In short: sugar makes you more stupid.
7. Skin Problems
Collagen is the most prevalent protein in the body and is responsible for skin elasticity. By nature, sugar molecules bind to collagen and help collagen cells move around.
Too much sugar in the body makes collagen cells less mobile and thus causes stiffness of tissues, including skin. (11) Loss of elasticity in the skin becomes apparent with the advent of wrinkles, among other things.
Plus, increased levels of sugar cause acne and dermatitis. Carbohydrates like bread, cereal, rice, and pasta cause an increase in insulin and androgen (a male sex hormone) production. Androgens cause the glands in the skin to produce extra oil, clogging pores and resulting in pimples. (12)
Also, candida is a yeast that lives in the digestive tract and on the skin. As a yeast, it thrives on sugar. Eating excess sugar makes yeast proliferate, resulting in nail infections, vaginal infections, athlete’s foot, and oral thrush. (13)
What’s more, high blood sugar can also lead to diabetic neuropathy, causing tinggling and pain in the feet.
Over time, internal inflammation and increased insulin production can cause cells to abnormally and rapidly reproduce. Cancer cells live on sugar, so that’s one more reason to ditch the sugar habit.
What Too Much Sugar Does to Your Body
Cancer has been deemed a global epidemic. In a Swiss study on the incidence of cancer around the world, the over-consumption of sugar in industrialized countries was found to be 1 of the primary culprits. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that 30-40% of healthcare expenditures go toward treating sugar-related illness and disease.
A 2014 study published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation was the first to look into how malignant and benign cancer cells respond to increased glucose.
All cells consume glucose for fuel. What researchers found is that not only do cancerous cells (both malignant and benign) consume sugar but excess sugar disrupts normal cell expression and causes “upregulated canonical oncogenic signaling” (development of tumors). (14) This is caused by complex metabolic reactions of cells to sugar.
Interestingly and encouragingly, when sugar intake is reduced, cells go back to normal function over time.
Sugar = Body Fat
Simply put: eating too much sugar will make you fat. That’s because sugar promotes weight gain in several ways, some of which are mentioned above. Clinical studies have proven unequivocally that increased intake of sugar causes weight gain. In fact, a meta-analysis of the consequences of excessive dietary sugar showed that after an observation period of 1 year, the propensity for weight gain and obesity in people who regularly consumed sugary foods was on average 55% higher than for those who reduced sugar intake.
“In trials of adults with ad libitum diets (that is, with no strict control of food intake), reduced intake of dietary sugars was associated with a decrease in body weight (0.80 kg, 95% confidence interval 0.39 to 1.21; P<0.001); increased sugars intake was associated with a comparable weight increase,” according to a 2013 study. (15)
The Dangers of Soda
The amount of soda and soft drink consumption especially correlates to significant weight gain, directly leading to obesity and diabetes. Diet soda is just as bad as its non-diet counterpart in that artificial sweeteners aren’t metabolized by the body and are therefore stored in fat cells, causing inflammation and weight gain. Billions of gallons of soda are consumed every year in the United States.
In fact, a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states:
“Findings from large cross-sectional studies, in conjunction with those from well-powered prospective cohort studies with long periods of follow-up, show a positive association between greater intakes of SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages] and weight gain and obesity in both children and adults… a 12-oz serving [12 oz = 1 can of soda (or 1 soda) = 1 serving] of soda provides 150 kcal and 40–50 g sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup [(HFCS) ≈45% glucose and 55% fructose], which is equivalent to 10 teaspoons of table sugar. If these calories are added to the typical US diet without reducing intake from other sources, 1 soda/d could lead to a weight gain of 15 lb or 6.75 kg in 1 y.” (16)
This means that if you drink even 1 can/bottle of soda or sweetened beverage per day with no other change to your diet or exercise, you can gain 15 pounds in a year due purely to the extra sugar content.
How Much Sugar is Too Much?
Naturally-occurring sugars like those found in fruits also come with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that facilitate their metabolism and allow cells to effectively use their nourishment.
The daily recommended amounts of carbohydrates are dependent upon age, size, and activity level. However, on average, the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars (not naturally-occurring) to 6 teaspoons/30 grams a day (about 100 calories) for women and 9 teaspoons/45 grams (about 150 calories) for men. (17)
Nutrition labels list the total carbohydrates in a packaged food and break that number into fiber and sugars. As a rule of thumb, more than 22.5g of sugar is considered too much sugar and 5g or less is low. (18) Total carbohydrate intake should make up roughly 45-65% of your daily calorie intake.
With a typical 2000-calorie/day diet, 900-1300 calories or 225-325 grams should come from carbohydrates. (19) You can use labels to figure out how much added sugar and total carbohydrates you’re getting from packaged food in a day. You can also find the carbohydrate content of produce by using resources like Nutrition Facts.
To give you an idea of the carbohydrate content of typical foods:
- 1 slice of white bread contains 15g (1.5g added sugar)
- 100g of pasta contains 25g (8% of total recommended daily allowance)
- 100g of rice contains 28g (.1g sugar)
- 1 medium-sized apple: 19g (including fiber)
- 100g of typical breakfast cereal: 68g (1g added sugar)
- 1 12-ounce can of cola: 39g (all sugar)
- 1 medium-sized carrot: 6g (including fiber)
Artificial Sweeteners – Better than Sugar?
Artificial sweeteners are not a great alternative to refined sugar. Overwhelming evidence points to their contribution to obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, chronic headaches, and cancer.
These sweeteners include:
- Aspartame (Equal®, NutraSweet®)
- Splenda (sucralose)
- High fructose corn syrup
- Sweet ‘n’ Low (saccharin)
Natural sugar sources like honey, maple syrup, fruits, and molasses add nutrients as well as sweetness. Relatively low on the glycemic index as compared with refined sugars, they are not only safe to use but promote wellness.
Additionally, because of their nutrition, they are more satisfying than refined sugars to fulfill the desire for a sweet taste, preventing over-consumption:
- Honey (raw and unpasteurized) – a superfood that is anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antibacterial, and packed with nutrients and antioxidants.
- Maple syrup – kills cancer cells; rich in minerals, anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, and unique phytochemicals that benefit human health.
- Molasses – mineral-rich, including calcium, iron, potassium, selenium, and magnesium.
- Fruit juice (real juice from fruit without added sugar) – high in natural sugars but contains lots of vitamins and minerals.
Click here for a short guide on sweeteners, natural and otherwise.
How to Recover from Sugar Addiction
If you’re addicted to sugar, there are ways to wean yourself from it. You’ll notice the difference in how you feel pretty quickly.
Depending on how much added/artificial sugar you’re used to consuming in a day and how long you’ve done so, you may actually experience withdrawal symptoms. (20) Like any other addiction, your body will respond to the absence of sugar:
- Changes in appetite/food cravings
- Impulsive behaviors
- Weight loss
You can end your over-consumption of sugar cold turkey or more slowly, making conscious dietary choices to cut out the bad stuff. Stopping abruptly is more likely to result in noticeable symptoms of withdrawal. It can take anywhere from a few days to a month to pass through the withdrawal period. (21)
To ease the discomfort of withdrawal, you can try:
- Increasing your activity level will burn sugar before it has a chance to forever store on your hips.
- Eat a handful of nuts or other protein sources (e.g., beans) with anything sweet to slow digestion and the body’s sugar absorption rate.
- Drinking green tea with lemon will help you to eliminate sugar from your bloodstream faster and keep it from sticking around in your kidneys and liver.
- Eating a protein-rich, low carbohydrate breakfast will kick-start your metabolism for the day. Protein in the first meal of the day promotes the burning of sugars to get you going before the protein kicks in to provide the morning’s energy.
- Drink a smoothie that’s primarily made of vegetables (low in sugar) with a little fruit to provide the sweetness you crave. It’s filling, satisfying, and nutritious without a crash later. (22)
Eating too much sugar? Help yourself kick the habit:
- Remove sugary snacks and artificial sweeteners from your pantry.
- Be kind to yourself. Understand the root of your addiction and the chemistry of it. Don’t feel guilt: instead, make conscious choices to make yourself feel better in the long run.
- With a decrease in sugar intake, your brain won’t produce as much dopamine. (23) Do other things that will lift your mood and don’t involve food, liek spending time with friends.
- Replace sweet treats with foods that make you feel good without the sugar. For instance, raw cocoa contains phytochemicals that increase feel-good hormones. Eggs, cultured dairy, cruciferous and green leafy vegetables, beans, spinach, corn, fish, and poultry contain nutrients that stimulate neurotransmitters, including dopamine.
- Drink plenty of filtered water. Not only will it help flush out excess sugar but dehydration can lead to sugar cravings. (24)
- Keep blood sugar levels stable by grazing on healthy foods throughout the day. Sugar spikes and crashes make you crave more sugar.
- Green and sea vegetables provide minerals that often become depleted with excess sugar and give you the energy boost you crave, without sugar.
- Probiotics will help your digestive system to process sugar and rebalance intestinal flora: kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, and miso are all super sources.
- Use peppermint oil to ease withdrawal symptoms, either in a diffuser or by applying topically to your temples and insides of your wrists.
- Chromium helps maintain stable blood sugar levels. Eat more chromium-rich foods: shellfish, brewer’s yeast, broccoli, garlic, grapes, beef, and turkey.
- Click here for tips on how to do a 3-day sugar detox.
Remember: the less sugar you eat, the sweeter real food will taste. Reducing the amount of sugar you eat will make you feel better and live longer, now isn’t that sweet?