Maybe you always find yourself reaching for a peanut butter cup when the late afternoon slump hits and you're dragging. Maybe you tend to top off dinner with a cookie (or two, or three). Or perhaps you're hooked on your mid-morning mocha latte, which, let's face it, has a lot more in common with dessert than a cup of coffee.
Yeah, you know sugar's not the best thing in the world for you — but if you've got a sweet tooth, it's pretty darn hard to resist.
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So just how harmful (or not) is eating dessert on a daily basis? The short answer is that it depends. Read on for the breakdown.
Not All Sugar Is Created Equal
First, it's important to keep in mind that your body processes a bowl of berries very differently than a bowl of ice cream.
"The natural sugar in fruit comes bound in fiber — as well as a host of phenols, polyphenols, antioxidants and phytochemicals that have a compensatory benefit," says family physician Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of Eat for Life. "These substances support the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut, which eats up some of that sugar and slows its entry into the bloodstream."
It's a different story for added sugars. "As opposed to the slow and steady caloric release associated with low-glycemic foods, sugar calories rush rapidly into your bloodstream because they are not accompanied by fiber," Dr. Fuhrman says.
For example, when you eat an apple, one or two calories a minute will enter your bloodstream over the next three hours, according to Dr. Fuhrman. Eating a chocolate bar, on the other hand, could shunt 40 sugar calories per minute into your bloodstream, causing a spike in glucose much higher than your body is able to burn for energy.
Sugar Is Sneaky
OK, so a slice of cake isn't the best thing for your body. Still, you might think, what's the big deal about having just one treat a day? Everything in moderation, right? But added sugar is already hiding in so many of the foods we eat.
According to the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), 74 percent of packaged food contains added sugar, so it's easy to go overboard without realizing it. Although the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to 6 to 9 teaspoons daily, the average American consumes a whopping 17 teaspoons a day. (That's 57 pounds a year!)
One of the issues with this excess sugar is that it leads to overeating. Per UCSF, high levels of sugar in the blood create a resistance to leptin, a naturally occurring hormone that tells your brain when you're full. As a result, your brain doesn't get the message that it's time to stop eating.
What's more, sweets are hard to put down. "They stimulate the same dopamine receptors in the central nervous system that are activated by narcotic use," Dr. Fuhrman says. "As you keep eating sweets, you require a higher and higher sugar hit to get the same dopamine stimulation, and the cravings can be hard to control."
You also become habituated to sweet flavors. "Eating highly sweetened substances deadens your taste buds," Dr. Fuhrman says. "Because your threshold for sweetness has been lowered, you need a higher degree of sugar to get the same taste sensations."
You may find, for example, that naturally sweet fruits and veggies taste flat; you can no longer appreciate a deliciously ripe strawberry or peach.
The Problem With Too Much Sugar
Before you bite into that chocolate chip cookie, let's talk about how your body responds to a high-sugar diet.
It Can Lead to Weight Gain
Even if you opt for a fat-free treat like sorbet or Swedish Fish, sugar is one of the fastest ways to pile on pounds. How come? Eating sugar spikes glucose in the bloodstream.
"Your body responds to this influx of glucose by secreting more of the hormone insulin, which drives sugar calories into fat cells," says Dr. Fuhrman.
With a surplus of fat cells in your body, you'll likely notice the number on the scale start creeping up. Indeed, a December 2017 analysis in Obesity Facts confirmed a link between obesity and sugar-sweetened beverages.
You’re More Prone to Chronic Health Conditions
But that's not all. An April 2014 article in Diabetes Care suggests that sugar intake is linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and fatty liver disease. Plus, a 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found a connection between sugar and death from cardiovascular disease, regardless of body weight.
Another thing that's not so sweet about dessert? A July 2016 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) revealed a link between a high-sugar diet and acne. According to the AAD, spikes in blood sugar increase inflammation and the production of sebum (an oily substance found on the skin), two contributing factors that lead to zits.
You Might Sleep Poorly
Your shut-eye could be compromised if you go heavy on the sweet stuff. Eating sugar was linked to lighter, less restorative sleep with more nighttime awakenings in a small study published January 2016 in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
People with a high-glycemic diet spend a shorter time in slow-wave sleep, which is key for memory consolidation, cognitive function and growth hormone secretion, according to the American Sleep Association. And remember that some types of dessert, like chocolate, also contain caffeine, which further disturbs your zzzs.
Sugar Can Affect Your Mood
It turns out having dessert won't put a smile on your face: A July 2017 study in Scientific Reports suggests that habitual intake of treats is related to depression and other mood disorders.
Even if you don't have full-blown depression, December 2016 research in the journal Appetite found that people who eat a lot of sweets and carbs tend to be less energetic and alert than folks who stick to low-sugar foods.
It’s Bad for Your Brain
"The spike of sugar in your bloodstream accelerates brain damage," Dr. Fuhrman says. "It has been linked to loss of brain cells, poor neurologic function and diminished neuroplasticity."
Indeed, an August 2013 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people with higher glucose levels were at greater risk of dementia.
4 Ways to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth in a Healthy Way
You don't have to cut out sugar entirely, but you can be more strategic about how and when you eat it. These tips can all help lessen sugar's negative effects.
1. Indulge at the End of the Meal
"When you eat a piece of fruit or a small dessert right after dinner, you are also eating other nutritious food along with the meal," Dr. Fuhrman says. "As a result, the glycemic effect is somewhat lessened as opposed to if you just sat down and had a big dessert on its own."
2. Divide Your Dessert into Serving Sizes
"You'll be less likely to succumb to cravings and overeat," Dr. Fuhrman says.
3. Use Fruit as Sweetener
"You'll get just as much flavor with no added sugar and high levels of fiber," Dr. Fuhrman says.
He suggests mashing up one to two dates or dried apricots per dessert serving. Mashed bananas or frozen cherries also work well. One yummy idea to try? Dr. Fuhrman's "vanilla ice cream:" blend a frozen banana with vanilla bean powder and soaked walnuts.
4. Savor a Piece of Chocolate
"Two-thirds of our tongue is covered with sweet receptors, so we are designed to seek out the flavor of sweetness," says heart surgeon and pioneer in nutrition Steve Gundry, MD, author of the upcoming book The Energy Paradox. "I advise people to slowly eat a single square of dark chocolate — 72 percent cacao or above — by literally letting it melt on your tongue."
That way, you'll get maximum flavor and minimal sugar. Win-win!
So, How Bad Is It Really to Eat Dessert Every Day?
We hate to leave a bad taste in your mouth, but if your daily treat is pushing your sugar intake past the healthy range, then it could be taking a serious toll on your health.
But here's a silver lining: If you follow the guidelines above, you can satisfy your sugar cravings while still being sweet to your body.
- Diabetes Care: "Dietary sugar and body weight: have we reached a crisis in the epidemic of obesity and diabetes?: health be damned! Pour on the sugar"
- New England Journal of Medicine: "Glucose Levels and Risk of Dementia"
- Obesity Facts: "Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain in Children and Adults: A Systematic Review from 2013 to 2015 and a Comparison with Previous Studies"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "A Low Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Diet Decreases Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 among Adults with Moderate and Severe Acne: A Short-Duration, 2-Week Randomized Controlled Trial"
- AAD: "CAN THE RIGHT DIET GET RID OF ACNE?"
- Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology: "Dietary glycemic factors, insulin resistance, and adiponectin levels in acne vulgaris"
- Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: "Fiber and Saturated Fat Are Associated with Sleep Arousals and Slow Wave Sleep"
- Appetite: "Subjective Mood and Energy Levels of Healthy Weight and Overweight/Obese Healthy Adults on High-and Low-Glycemic Load Experimental Diets"
- American Sleep Association: "Deep Sleep: How to Get More of It"
- Scientific Reports: "Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study"
- UCSF: "Hidden in Plain Sight"
- UCSF: "Too Much Can Make Us Sick"
- Harvard Medical School: "Intermittent fasting: Surprising update"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults"
- American Heart Association: "Added Sugars"