Sugary foods can be hard to resist, and a few sweet treats won't generally do any harm as part of a balanced diet. However when it comes to the health of your pancreas, sugar in excessive amounts probably isn't a good idea. Though, as with most diet and health stories, it's not simple.
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According to the Mayo Clinic, having overweight (from excess calories in general, not just too much sugar) harms your pancreas, which may lead to type 2 diabetes.
What Does the Pancreas Do?
The pancreas is a vital organ, which the National Institutes of Health explains has two main functions. Primarily, it helps with the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. However, it also plays a role in the production of hormones (insulin and glucagon) that help regulate the level of sugar in your blood.
When the pancreas is working well, your blood sugar level is kept within tight limits. However, problems with the pancreas can lead to diabetes, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Type 1 diabetes is caused by damage to the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas, which leaves them producing too little of the hormone, or even none at all. It usually begins in childhood, and requires a lifetime of daily treatment with insulin.
Type 2 diabetes, which is more common, occurs when the pancreas no longer produces enough insulin to prevent the sugar level in your blood from rising. Having overweight or obesity make the body's cells less responsive, even to high levels of insulin, putting extra strain on the over-stressed pancreas as it tries to pump out more of the hormone.
The Pancreas, Sugar and Health
Sugar-sweetened beverages are a category of sugary foods specifically worth cutting down on, to keep your pancreas healthy. A December 2016 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that people consuming sugary drinks are more likely to have insulin resistance and pre-diabetes (the condition in which blood sugar levels are higher than they should be, before full-blown diabetes develops).
However, the pancreas-sugar link is tenuous, and research published in the January 2016 edition of Diabetes Care found that it's actually an accumulation of fat in the pancreas that's the real culprit in the development of type 2 diabetes. The research found that weight loss in individuals with obesity and type 2 diabetes reduced fat levels in the pancreas, improved blood glucose and lowered fasting insulin levels.
Pancreatitis, which is a painful inflammation of the pancreas, is also more likely if you have obesity, according to the Mayo Clinic. Another diet-related risk factor for pancreatitis is drinking alcohol in excess.
Is Fructose the Worst Sugar?
Some scientists argue that fructose — found naturally in fruit but also in many processed foods — is the worst type of sugar. Both table sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) weigh in at around 50 percent fructose, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
A study in the September 2016 edition of The Journal of Clinical Investigation theorizes that excess fructose might stimulate diabetes by triggering the release of carbohydrate-responsive element-binding protein, or ChREBP. This protein appears to initiate a process that keeps blood glucose levels raised, even while the pancreas produces insulin to keep blood glucose in check.
The study was in animals, but the authors point out that humans also produce ChREBP. But human studies are needed before conclusions are drawn.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, there's evidence that too much fructose in the diet is a contributory factor in pancreatic cancer. It's generally a good idea to keep your sugar intake in check, regardless of your overall health.
Read more: Foods to Avoid If You Have Pancreatitis
- National Institutes of Health: "The Power of Your Pancreas"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "What is Diabetes?"
- Journal of Nutrition: "Sugar-Sweetened Beverage but Not Diet Soda Consumption Is Positively Associated With Progression of Insulin Resistance and Prediabetes"
- Diabetes Care: "Weight Loss Decreases Excess Pancreatic Triacylglycerol Specifically in Type 2 Diabetes"
- Mayo Clinic: "Pancreatitis"
- Harvard Health Publishing:"Which Is Better, High-Fructose Corn Syrup or Table Sugar?"
- The Journal of Clinical Investigation: "ChREBP Regulates Fructose-Induced" Glucose Production Independently of Insulin Signaling"
- American Institute for Cancer Research: "Pancreatic Cancer"