We all know sugar isn't exactly the key to good health, but it can be tough to avoid the sweet stuff altogether. And hey, foods like ice cream and cake can have a place in a healthy diet. The key is to keep from going overboard. But if you're not tracking every gram, how can you know?
Here, we'll break down five telltale signs you're eating too much added sugar.
Added sugar is exactly what it sounds like: it’s sugar added to foods and beverages like cookies, breakfast cereals, energy drinks and soda (and even less obvious culprits, like barbecue and pasta sauce). This differs from the sugars that naturally occur in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and milk.
1. You’re Gaining Weight (Especially Around Your Middle)
Too many calories from any food can translate to weight gain, but foods loaded with added sugars are particularly easy to overdo thanks to their high palatability (in other words, they're tasty).
How exactly does eating all the treats lead to weight gain?
Excess glucose (sugar in the blood) first gets converted to its storage form, called glycogen, in the muscles and liver. When glycogen stores reach their max capacity, glucose that's still leftover gets turned into triglycerides, or fats, Sharon Bergquist, MD, associate professor of medicine at the Emory School of Medicine and director of the Emory Lifestyle Medicine & Wellness program, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Over time, this fat can build up around vital organs such as the heart, liver and pancreas, adding inches to your waistline as it increases the risk of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and hypertension, Elizabeth Bradley, MD, medical director of the Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
What's more, eating a lot of added sugars may lead to hormonal changes that can mess with appetite regulation, per a January 2020 review in the Polish Journal of Food and Nutrition Sciences.
In particular, taking in a lot of fructose — the type of sugar found in many processed foods and drinks — was linked to a decrease in leptin, which helps suppress appetite.
2. Your Energy Levels Crash During the Day
"When we consume too much added sugar, especially without having enough fiber, fat and protein, insulin is secreted rapidly to help stabilize blood sugar levels," Laura Burak, RD, a New York-based registered dietitian and founder of Laura Burak Nutrition, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
This swift release of insulin leads to an equally swift decrease in blood sugar levels as the hormone works to remove excess glucose from the blood stat. The result is an energy spike that's quickly followed by an energy crash, per Harvard Health Publishing.
"Many people, especially those living with diabetes, report physically feeling the rise and fall of blood sugar and how much it affects their overall energy levels," Burak says.
To avoid the energy peaks and valleys that follow a sugary meal, opt for carbohydrates that produce a slow, steady rise in blood sugar, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
"The natural sugars in these whole foods are bound to fiber and are digested slower, which is why they raise blood sugar more gradually," Dr. Bergquist says. Plain and simple: "They'll give you more sustained energy."
3. Your Skin Is Suffering
Diet is rarely the singular cause of acne, but sugar and refined carbohydrates may be part of the breakout equation. Research has shown that a low-glycemic diet rich in foods like fresh vegetables, beans and fiber-filled steel-cut oats may help reduce acne, per the American Academy of Dermatology.
It may be that a low-glycemic diet — which excludes foods rich in added sugars — helps to lower the production of sebum, aka oil, in the skin. "Excess sebum production is a known risk factor for acne development," Tamar Samuels, RD, a New Jersey-based dietitian and co-founder of Culina Health, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Also important: "High levels of insulin in the blood trigger the release of growth hormones that increase sebum production, unregulated cellular growth and androgen production," Samuels says.
Because sugary foods trigger insulin secretion, dialing back on daily desserts may benefit oily T-zones.
Examples of added sugars you might find on a food's nutrition label include raw cane sugar, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, molasses and agave, to name a few.
4. You Constantly Crave Sweets
Eating sweets typically makes us feel really good in the moment, which in turn makes us want more (and more and more) of them.
This makes sense, because high sugar consumption has been associated with an over-activation of neural reward pathways, per an August 2019 study in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Basically, once these pathways are overstimulated, we become primed to eat all the cookies because we associate them with pleasure.
"That's why eating high-sugar foods is compared to the euphoric effect of taking drugs," Burak says. "Serotonin and dopamine, those feel-good hormones, are secreted from our brains when we eat sweets, and we experience a temporary sense of happiness and calm as a result."
It's not uncommon to get hooked on the sense of comfort we feel after eating sugar-rich foods. Over time, this dependence can heighten cravings.
"Especially when we are tired, stressed or overwhelmed, we tend to crave sweets that will quickly make us feel better," Burak says.
5. Your Bloodwork Shows Some Red Flags
Chronically consuming added sugar in excess can lead to insulin resistance, which can in turn lead to diabetes.
To get a sense of how your added sugar intake may be affecting your health, you may want to get a blood test and review your blood glucose, hemoglobin A1c, triglyceride and insulin levels with your doctor or a registered dietitian, Samuels says.
"Hemoglobin A1c is a blood test that measures your average blood sugar levels over a two- to three month period, so it is the most accurate test to detect your glycemic control and how it has been trending over time," Burak says.
Triglyceride levels can also give insight into whether your added sugar intake is too high, because, as we noted before, excess sugars can be converted into triglycerides.
Below are optimal values for these measurements:
Fasting Blood Glucose
Insulin levels aren't always checked on a basic blood test, but some experts believe they can be key in preventing the insulin resistance (IR) that often precedes type 2 diabetes, especially because IR doesn't cause symptoms at early stages.
"A fasting insulin test can show the beginning of insulin resistance, which is closely associated with increased body weight, metabolic syndrome and chronic inflammation," Dr. Bradley says. "Intervening with a diet low in sugars and carbs and increasing whole foods, unprocessed foods, vegetables, some low-glycemic fruits, lean protein, nuts, seeds and healthy oils can help reduce insulin levels."
How Much Added Sugar Is Too Much?
No more than 10 percent of our daily calories should come from added sugar, per the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. On a typical 2,000-calorie diet, that translates to 200 calories, or about 50 grams of added sugar per day.
Reality check: The average American currently consumes nearly double that, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Why is that problematic?
"Added sugars are a leading cause of the rise in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and fatty liver disease," Dr. Bergquist says.
And the Dietary Guidelines are more lenient than recommendations from other organizations. For example, the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of six to nine teaspoons (24 to 36 grams) of sugar per day, depending on your weight, age and activity level. (For reference, a can of Coke has 39 grams of added sugar.)
Bottom line: When it comes to added sugar, less is more.
Is This an Emergency?
- 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: “Top 10 Things You Need to Know About the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025”
- American Diabetes Association: “Diagnosis”
- American Heart Association: “Triglycerides: Frequently Asked Questions”
- Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews: “The Impact of Sugar Consumption on Stress Driven, Emotional and Addictive Behaviors”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Refueling Your Energy Levels”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Added Sugar in the Diet”
- Polish Journal of Food and Nutrition Sciences: “The Dose Makes the Poison: Sugar and Obesity in the United States – a Review”
- American Heart Association: “Added Sugars”
- American Academy of Dermatology: “Can the Right Diet Get Rid of Acne?”
- Coca-Cola: "Coca-Cola Original"