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The Not-So-Sweet Ways Added Sugar Can Harm your Body

Sugar supplies a steady source of energy for your body. Too much of a good thing can have negative health effects.


Woman with handful of sugar

Sugar has many positives. It’s sweet flavor makes most anything taste better. It provides an immediate boost to your energy and mood. And in its natural form, sugar contains healthy nutrients.

Your body needs sugar. But it also craves the sweet stuff, leading most Americans to eat entirely too much sugar. That increases your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and other diseases.

“The average person basically eats their weight in sugar — 152 pounds every year. Just think about what that does to your body.”
— Ashley Taliaferro, DO

Sugar is unavoidable. It’s in nearly everything we eat — cereals, breads, desserts and even things that don’t taste sweet. Unlike sugars naturally found in fruits, vegetables and other whole foods, the bulk of the sugar in our diets has been added by food manufacturers during processing or packaging.

How much sugar should you have per day?

A lot less than what you probably consume currently.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 reports that the average person gets a whopping 13 percent of their daily calories from added sugars. In a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s an extra 260 calories every single day.

The American Heart Association recommends you eat much less sugar. You should limit it to less than half of your daily allowance of “discretionary calories” — the extra calories you enjoy after all your nutritional needs are met. In reality, every man, woman and child in the country is eating two to three times that recommendation. Instead, they should be following a much stricter sugar intake:

Daily Recommended Added Sugar Intake

Age Group

Sugar Intake (Teaspoons)

Sugar Intake (Calories)

Toddlers (Ages 1–3)

3–4 teaspoons

48–64 calories

Children (Ages 4–8)

5–8 teaspoons

80–128 calories

Girls & Women (Ages 9 and Over)

6 teaspoons

96 calories

Boys & Men (Ages 9 and Over)

9 teaspoons

144 calories


What does too much sugar do to your body?

Sugar is addictive. That’s why your body craves it. And that’s why so many food manufacturers sprinkle it into their products. It drives you to buy more of the foods you crave.

Once inside your body, sugar is digested and broken down by the small intestine into glucose. From there, glucose is released into the bloodstream and delivered to the rest of your body, where your muscles, organs and other tissues convert it into energy or store it for later.

Your pancreas monitors your blood glucose levels and produces insulin to help control it. It makes the decision on when to put glucose into energy reserves. When blood sugar levels are high and you have more glucose than your body needs, your cells become insulin-resistant, the controls break down and your blood sugar rises to dangerous levels that have serious health effects.

1. Too much sugar leads to obesity.

There's no question that added sugar contributes to the nation's obesity epidemic. “We eat way too much sugar, and it’s leading to serious health problems,” says Ashley Taliaferro, DO, an Altoona family medicine physician with The Iowa Clinic.

It’s estimated that 74 percent of our packaged foods contain added sugar. The leading sources are sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts like cakes and cookies, candy and dairy desserts like ice cream. Most of them provide no nutritional value. Especially sugar-sweetened beverages like soda — the single biggest source of added sugar.

“Sodas and most other sugary drinks are just empty calories. Just one can of regular soda has more added sugar than you need in a day,” says Dr. Taliaferro. “If you drink soda every day, you can gain up to 15 pounds in a year — all from that one source of sugar.”

The pounds quickly add up, and you become overweight or obese.

“If you become obese, it creates so many more problems than just additional weight. You have more body fat. Plaque builds up in your arteries. You develop high blood pressure. There are a lot of diseases that are linked to obesity,” she adds.

2. High blood sugar causes type 2 diabetes.

Although sugar consumption isn't directly related to developing diabetes, being overweight or obese is. When sugar you eat stays in your blood instead of quickly converting into energy, your body can stop responding to the insulin that maintains normal blood sugar levels.

“Sugar isn’t all bad. You need some to function and to give your body energy,” Dr. Taliaferro explains. “But you can have too much of a good thing. Too much sugar creates problems for your pancreas. Your body can become insulin resistant as a result, which is how type 2 diabetes starts.”

When you’re diagnosed with diabetes, you must carefully monitor your blood glucose levels and watch your diet to avoid potentially life-threatening complications.

3. Diets high in sugar hurt your heart.

“There's a clear correlation between sugar consumption and high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke,” says Dr. Nasser Khan, MD, a cardiologist with The Iowa Clinic.

While there are several theories as to why sugar raises blood pressure, Dr. Khan says, excess belly fat can make you more prone to heart disease.

“Sugar consumption also contributes to metabolic syndrome, which is present when someone has a large girth, high blood pressure and high blood sugar,” he says. “That’s another significant predictor of coronary artery disease.”

4. Sugar consumption is linked to cancer.

Young girl avoiding sugar

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It's been said that cancer cells feed on sugar. But every cell needs sugar to survive. There’s no strong evidence that eating a lot of sugar increases your risk of cancer or that cancer grows faster if you don’t restrict sugar intake.

However, the evidence is very clear on the link between weight and cancer. A high-sugar diet contributes to excess weight and body fat, which increases your risk of many common cancers. 

How do you avoid added sugars in your diet — and the related health risks?

Since three-fourths of packaged foods contain added sugar, it might seem impossible to eat a healthy diet. After all, you’re left eating the less tasty 25 percent of foods. But you can easily reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet by making these changes:

1. Focus on whole foods, not processed ones.

Added sugars only dominate the packaged and processed foods, the same products that offer less nutrition overall than whole foods. You also get sugar naturally from carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low-fat dairy sources.

A healthy diet focuses on these whole foods. They provide high-fiber carbohydrates that have a low glycemic index. Your body gets a slow and steady rise in blood sugar instead of a sudden sugar rush and subsequent crash.

2. Stay away from sugary drinks.

Liquid sugars are more harmful than solid sources because they are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream. When sugar is converted into high fructose corn syrup, it’s a cheap, highly concentrated form of sugar that delivers an even bigger jolt to your body.

“It’s harder for your body to process high fructose corn syrup than sugar from natural sources,” says Dr. Taliaferro. “Your liver struggles to keep up with the speed at which corn syrup breaks down, which causes your blood sugar to spike quicker. High fructose corn syrup also gets stored as fat. So your weight increases and so does your risk of obesity, diabetes and other problems.”

Drink more water. It’s the only liquid your body actually needs. So stop drinking sodas, fruit juices, energy drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Studies show that if you reduce liquid calories in your diet, you'll lose weight more quickly.

3. Limit solid sugars in packaged products.

Solid sugars are still harmful. They are mixed in with other ingredients and absorbed more slowly by the body. Solid sugars are present in many breakfast cereals, refined grains like white bread or pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, cakes, cookies, pies, sweetened dairy products and desserts.

There are many “low sugar” or “no added sugar” alternatives in grocery aisles. If you find it too difficult to cut packaged products from your diet entirely, substitute the lower sugar options.

4. Decipher hidden sugar sources on food labels.

These days, you’ll find the words “No Added Sugar” on food labels more often than you’ll spot just “sugar” on an ingredient list. Food manufacturers are great at promoting when they don’t use added sugar, but are even better at hiding when they do.

There are as many as 60 different names for sugar on food packaging. If you can spot these, you can more easily reduce your sugar intake:

  • Ingredients that end with “-ose” – These three letters signal sugar. And it’s not just glucose, like what’s found in your body. Sucrose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, lactose, galactose and variations of these are all common forms of sugar.
  • Sweet-sounding words and phrases – If you see “sweet” in a word or phrase, it’s sugar. Same for juice and syrup. Look out for these stealthier sweeteners: dextrin, barley malt, diatese, diastatic malt, turbinado and ethyl maltol.

How do I keep added sugars away from my kids?

Sugar is also fueling the childhood obesity crisis. And that affects their present and future. Obese children are more likely to grow into obese adults and develop diabetes, heart disease and all the other associated health problems.

“Studies show that kids who consume more sugary drinks are more prone to have coronary artery disease later in life,” says Dr. Khan.

Kids who consume too much sugar are also more likely to have weakened immunity, frequent cold-like symptoms, stomachaches and poor appetite. They're less able to concentrate in school and prone to exercise less.

“You can actually see problems early,” Dr. Taliaferro. “There’s more sugar in formula, so formula-fed babies tend to get more calories and gain more weight. Children who drink a lot of fruit juice or eat sugary snacks are also more likely to weigh more.”

Parent must help establish healthy habits in their children. The same advice for adult diets applies to kids:

  • Limit sugary drinks. Growing children often get high doses of sugar through fruit juices, sodas and other drinks. Half of a cup of juice is all any child needs in a day. Every sugar drink a child consumes increases obesity risk by 50 percent.
  • Offer low-sugar cereals. Eating a bowl of sugary cereal every morning can add up to about 10 pounds of added sugar a year. Regular Cheerios, unsweetened oatmeal and Cream of Wheat are better options.
  • Keep healthy snacks on hand. Whole fruits and vegetables, trail mix, cheese slices and raisins are healthy and nutritious. Avoid processed foods. Choose canned fruits and vegetables that have no added sugar or salt or have reduced or light quantities.

Diets are a hard thing to change. Your family medicine physician and your child’s pediatrician can help. The sooner you reduce your sugar intake, the sweeter the rewards for your health.

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