Sucrose, or table sugar, may add sweetness to your favorite treats, but when it comes to your health, it's not so sweet. Weight gain, poor blood sugar control and heart disease are just a few of the dangers of regularly including sucrose in your diet.
Too much sucrose can lead to weight gain, fluctuating blood sugar levels, addictive eating behavior and heart health risks.
It Causes Weight Gain
Besides carbohydrates, sugar provides no nutrients. According to USDA data, 1 tablespoon has 12.6 grams of carbs. There is no protein, fat, vitamins or minerals to speak of.
But table sugar does contain calories — 50 per tablespoon. That doesn't seem like much, but it adds up, especially when you take into consideration that Americans consume 6 cups of sugar each week, on average, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That's 4,800 calories per week, or 685 calories per day, from sugar.
To put this in perspective, the average person needs about 2,000 calories per day. Therefore, if those statistics are accurate, average daily sugar intake would make up 34 percent of daily calories. That's 34 percent of your daily calories that is completely devoid of nutrients.
The result is that people end up eating more than they think each day and regularly exceed their calorie needs. When you consume more calories than you need, your body stores the excess as fat. Over time, this leads to weight gain and obesity.
Obesity has been implicated as the precursor to a host of diseases. According to the National Institutes of Health, excess body weight increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, osteoarthritis, fatty liver disease, certain types of cancer and kidney disease.
It Spikes Blood Sugar
Table sugar is a carbohydrate, which your body needs each day for energy. However, not all carbs are created equal.
Sugar is a simple carb. It's easy for the body to break down and passes quickly into the bloodstream. When this happens, blood sugar levels rise dramatically.
This is what you may have heard referred to as a "sugar high." A rapid influx of sugar into the bloodstream causes a quick surge of energy. But very soon, blood sugar levels fall, and your energy level falls as well. This marked fluctuation in blood sugar can have both short-term and long-term deleterious effects.
In the short-term, when your blood sugar falls, you may feel tired and sluggish, moody and hungry again — even though you just ate a sugary snack. This can contribute to weight gain, loss of productivity and, in the long-term, poor overall health — especially when you eat a lot of sugar.
People with diabetes need to avoid sugar. In diabetes, the body's ability to produce insulin — the hormone that helps the cells take in sugar — declines, or it doesn't use insulin well. In this case, surging blood sugar levels can be dangerous, because the body is not able to properly handle the excess.
It Becomes Addictive
Have you ever noticed that the more sugar you eat, the more sugar you crave? There's a scientific explanation for that. According to a study published in the journal PLOS One in February 2015, binging on sucrose creates increases in dopamine — a neurotransmitter involved in the brain's reward system — similar to that of drugs of abuse, such as opioids.
According to the researchers, sucrose has similar characteristics to drugs of abuse, including rapid absorption. This makes it — and foods high in it — common in addictive-like eating behaviors. In the study, 500 participants were asked to identify problematic foods associated with addictive-like behaviors based on the same criteria used to diagnose substance dependence.
Among the 35 foods included, 18 of which were highly processed, chocolate, ice cream, cookies and cake ranked high on the list. In addition, like drugs of abuse, people can build up a tolerance to sugar, needing more and more of it to get the same effects. Symptoms of withdrawal may also occur when people abruptly stop eating sugar.
It Damages Your Heart
Aside from its tendency to promote weight gain and obesity, which negatively impacts heart health, sugar may also directly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers in a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in April 2014 examined results of a long-term, large-scale national health and nutrition survey.
They found that most adults consumed at least 10 percent of their calories from sugar, and about one-tenth of respondents consumed 25 percent or more of total calories from sugar. After examining mortality data and adjusting for hazard ratios, they determined that the more sugar a person ate, the higher the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
It's not clear exactly how sugar may affect heart health, but there are a few possible explanations. According to Harvard Health, excessive sugar intake can overload the liver, which metabolizes the sugar and stores the extra the body can't use as fat.
Over time, this can cause the accumulation of fat in the liver that leads to fatty liver disease. Fatty liver disease contributes to the development of diabetes, which increases the risk of heart disease.
Additionally, consuming a lot of sugar can raise blood pressure levels and increase systemic inflammation, both of which can contribute to heart disease. It may be the combination of all of the above — weight gain, fatty liver, high blood pressure and inflammation — that accounts for the ultimate effect.
How Much Sucrose You Need
You don't need any sucrose. Your body can break down complex carbs to produce the glucose that your body and brain run on. Sometimes, athletes, such as long-distance runners, might opt for fuel in the form of simple sugars because it can be used immediately. But for the average person, carbohydrates that digest slowly are the healthiest choice.
Ideally, you should cut out all sugar from your diet, but as you'll see below, that can be quite challenging. Still, you should aim to get as little as possible. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, recommends limiting your intake of added sugars to less than 10 percent of your daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that's only 200 calories. If you can go lower than that, your health will reap even greater benefits.
Tips for Avoiding Sugar
The sugar you need to avoid isn't just the white stuff you spoon into your coffee each morning. It's the sugar in the pastry you eat alongside it, in the soda you grab at lunch and the ice cream you treat yourself to after dinner.
But sugar can be sneaky and lurk in places you wouldn't even expect. For example, the loaf of whole-wheat bread you pick up at the store is bound to have some sugar added to it. Cereals are loaded with sugar, as are flavored yogurts, commercial sauces and dressings, pasta sauce and frozen and prepared meals. Unless you are cooking your food yourself, it's challenging to avoid sugar.
So you need to get label savvy. Sugar appears in many other forms than just sucrose, and it's equally bad for you, no matter the source. According to the University of California San Francisco, there are more than 60 different ways sugar can be listed on food labels. Some examples include:
- High fructose corn syrup
- Barley malt
- Rice syrup
First, look at the nutrition facts label for added sugars. New labeling sometimes makes the distinction between naturally occurring sugars and those that have been added. It's the added sugars you want to avoid. If there isn't a distinction on the label, then look carefully at the ingredients list for some of the ways sugar may be listed. If you spot sugar, put the item back on the shelf.
- USDA: "Basic Report: 19335, Sugars, Granulated"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "How Much Sugar Do You Eat? You May Be Surprised!"
- NIH: "Health Risks of Being Overweight"
- American Heart Association: "Carbohydrates"
- NIH: "What Is Diabetes?"
- PLOS One: "Which Foods May Be Addictive? The Roles of Processing, Fat Content, and Glycemic Load"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Sweet Danger of Sugar"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations"
- University of California San Francisco: "Hidden in Plain Sight"
- Harvard University: Science in the News: "Natural and Added Sugars: Two Sides of the Same Coin"