What is too much sugar doing to my body?
April 10, 2012 2:06 AM   Subscribe

Please scare the hell out of me with regard to sugar. I maintain a healthy BMI, cycle 100km+ a week and eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. My diet is primarily vegetarian with the occasional meal of fish. I also eat a metric crap-tonne of chocolate and other sugary foods. What specific health risks is my high sugar consumption exposing me to and how can I cut back?

I know I should probably eat less sugar, but I'm finding it tremendously difficult to kick the habit. I think part of the problem is that I've convinced myself that since my lifestyle is "otherwise healthy", my sugar consumption isn't such a big deal. Type II diabetes? Meh, that's what happens to fat people. Heart disease? Meh, my cholesterol levels are at rock bottom. And anyway, I exercise.

Although it seems mighty convincing as I demolish another Easter egg, I strongly suspect that my logic is flawed. I'm interested in hearing both evidence and anecdata which dispute it. What exactly is all this sugar doing to my body?
posted by embrangled to Health & Fitness (43 answers total) 97 users marked this as a favorite
I've got the same problem as you, perhaps to a lesser degree. Here's a list of books that I've been meaning to read.

With a title like "Suicide by Sugar" I am pretty sure they are going to try and scare the crap out of you. "Sugar Blues" seems to be the seminal work in this area, seeing as it's been around since forever.
posted by THAT William Mize at 2:22 AM on April 10, 2012

Best answer: not exactly what you're looking for, but how about stopping and considering the effects of sugar on your teeth?
posted by mirileh at 2:59 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm assuming that "metric crap-tonne" is equal to a medium-to-large sugar binge?

If so, this has been shown (under certain circumstances) to develop addictive behaviours (in rats):
Sugar intake causes the release of dopamine in the brain, a reward chemical. After a month of sugar binging and increased dopamine levels, the rats’ brains developed fewer dopamine receptors and more opioid receptors—changes similar to those observed in mice on cocaine and heroine.

When their sugar supply was suddenly cut off, the mice exhibited signs of withdrawal, including teeth-chattering, anxiety, and refusing to leaving their tunnels. The latest research showed that when these mice were offered sugar once again, they worked harder to attain it and consumed more than ever.
That's a bit scary, right?
posted by fakelvis at 3:05 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: That's a bit scary, right?

Terrifying. I'm pretty sure this has already happened to me.
posted by embrangled at 3:21 AM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Robert Lustig's lecture called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 3:26 AM on April 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

I've (accidentally) cut all sugar from my diet, except from one teaspoon of sugar in my coffee.
After a month, my skin looks 5 years younger.
posted by leigh1 at 3:52 AM on April 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

I have family members who are not fat, who don't eat piles of junk food and who exercise regularly - but they still contracted diabetes, probably related to sugar consumption. Type 2 - not just for fat people.

Sugar may also contribute to heart disease.

posted by bunderful at 4:22 AM on April 10, 2012

Best answer: Here's an article about cutting out sugar in the Daily Fail.

And if you really want to give yourself a fright, read the comments.

Or anything else the "newspaper" publishes.
posted by ZipRibbons at 4:48 AM on April 10, 2012

Looking up the Lustig lecture BusyBusyBusy linked to I found this Gary Taubes article about how high sugar consumption might also contribute to cancer.
posted by egg drop at 5:10 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Two books that convinced me to sharply cut my carb intake (including sugar) were Protein Power: The book with a very long sub-title, and Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It. I read both in an attempt to get a grip on my ever-increasing weight problem. Their talk about the effects of high carb intake on insulin levels convinced me to make a change. I haven't seen a lot of effects on my weight but other factors are improving.
posted by Infinity_8 at 5:15 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

60minutes did a piece two weeks about sugar. It's available on their website.
posted by User7 at 5:20 AM on April 10, 2012

Definitely recommend Lustigs video on Sugar: The Bitter Truth. This webpage has the video with other info on sugar types, (fructose and uric acid production) is worth re-assessing your intake.

I read an interesting article in the paper today how precursory signs of cardiovascular disease can be seen in children as young as 12 now via eye retinal scans - kids as young as 12 with signs of heart disease because of high intake of sugars: softdrink / juice, etc.
posted by Under the Sea at 5:33 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses so far. It's becoming clear I may need to start thinking of sugar as an addiction rather than just a bad habit. If that's the case, any tips on getting it under control?

Also, sorry to threadsit, but there's one more objection my apparently sugar-addled brain keeps raising: High Fructose Corn Syrup? Meh, that's an American problem. I live in Australia, where our sugar comes from cane. It's mostly sucrose, which is less risky, right? And hey, at least I don't drink soda.

So, with that piece of blatant rationalisation in mind, resources which address the health risks associated with sucrose, particularly in a non-American context, would be especially helpful.

Clearly my monkey mind wants me to Eat All The Sugar, but I've found that I am capable of reasoning my way out of unhelpful behaviours once I truly understand their consequences. It worked when I gave up caffeine, now I probably need to do the same with sugar. I'm nerdy, I guess that's just how my brain works.
posted by embrangled at 5:59 AM on April 10, 2012

Best answer: Sucrose is half fructose and half glucose, not significantly different for your body than high-fructose corn syrup.
posted by Ery at 6:09 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Two words: insulin resistance. You may or may not buy this. I've bought into it simply out of caution. Good luck!
posted by Infinity_8 at 6:10 AM on April 10, 2012

Here's a thing: at certain times of my life, I've been successful with a "Six days of the week are No [Thing] days but one day of the week is a [Thing] day". On Thing day, I buy only so much Thing as I can reasonably consume that day, whether that's pizza or candy or whatever. This is useful for Things that I still want to be able to enjoy - or still need to be able to eat at work functions or family events, etc - but need to cut back on. I never keep Thing in the house, because that's a recipe for disaster.
posted by Frowner at 6:10 AM on April 10, 2012 [8 favorites]

Best answer: liver. all the excess sugar (especially in binge-type overloads) builds up a specific kind of fat deposit in your liver that puts you at risk for all those things you thought only happened to obese people. it's like a secret storehouse of future woe, and I think you can only stop contributing to it, not really get rid of it. risk of diabetes, other metabolic issues, liver disease, etc. there was a good Narticle in the NYTimes about a year ago called "Is Sugar Toxic?" that made a great impression on me and is worth a read for self-scaring...
posted by acm at 6:20 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have personally found quitting sugar to be a fairly miserable process of cravings and headaches that takes about a week and half to get through. I've done it twice over the years and really need to do it again. Just warn your closest peeps that you're going to be grouchy and irritable. And after that, Frowner's 6 days of No [Thing] sounds pretty good.
posted by Glinn at 6:40 AM on April 10, 2012

Best answer: Hi OP, I'm a nutritionist (IANYNutritionist). Regarding getting the sugar out: Given your description of your diet, I suggest you try focusing on overall balance rather than try to eliminate your sweets & chocolates by force. Any imbalance or personal deficiency in any macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, fat) will cause a sweet craving. By "personal deficiency" I mean you may not be getting enough of something for your specific biochemistry, regardless of what government standards may say about the number of grams or protein or whatever you "should" be eating. So you may want to experiment with eating more fat and/or protein and/or experiment with various types of fat and protein (e.g., more animal protein vs vegetable protein or maybe try butter instead of olive oil). It takes some playing around to find the right combination for each person that allows you to deconstruct your cravings and learn how to eat in such a way that you don't have overwhelming cravings.

You may also be craving sugar due to non-food factors, for example stress at work, lack of sleep, emotional reasons, etc. All that stuff requires balancing as well.

Once you have that going, then you can start working on reducing/eliminating processed sugars.

So, to recap:

1. Try experimenting with your other macronutrients, lifestyle factors, etc and learn how they affect your cravings
2. THEN look at reducing sugar
posted by hansbrough at 6:54 AM on April 10, 2012 [12 favorites]

grams *of protein...
posted by hansbrough at 6:55 AM on April 10, 2012

Best answer: I have been off of sugar (asterisk) as of New Year's Day. It has been somewhat of a successful New Year's resolution for me, and I am glad that I have done it. However, I went into this by thinking it through long and hard. I knew that whatever I decided about just what "no sugar" meant should be decided BEFORE I began or else I would find myself redefining and changing rules throughout my time without sugar. So I allowed myself a few exceptions:

1. I would eat one desert per month (perfect so that you don't have to skip out awkwardly when offered a piece of birthday cake etc...)
2. Syrup and honey. I know that this is a big one, but I decided that I would eat such a small amount of this compared to the sugar that I usually consumed, that the sugar/honey would be negligible in comparison. And this has definitely been the case.
3. Breath Mints.
4. Fruit. I would eat as much as I wanted.
5. A sweet expresso drink per week (as a reward).
6. Dark chocolate above 70 percent cocao.

I know that this doesn't sound like much, but this resolution has absolutely changed my appetite. I find that I am not as hungry for real food as I was before. I can't finish a full plate of food anymore. I'm not exactly sure of the science of this, but it was explained to me that when we eat sugar, we crave more sugar. However, our bodies confuse the cravings for all types of food so we are just hungry all the time. It seems to be the case that this is true, or was for me anyway. BTW, don't let everyone scare you about the hell you will go through by curbing your sugar. Just eat lots of the other comfort foods for that first week that are not dessert foods. And stay busy. And think about how fabulous you will look in that bathing suit this summer. Good luck!

btw: I'm a guy. Even though I could care less about losing weight, I lost about 12 pounds by kicking the sugar. People tell me that I look great and I haven't really changed anything else about my habits. I allow myself to eat as much of anything else I want except dessert and I really don't exercise at all. I'm not saying that these areas are not next on my list to tackle, but I am saying that just by kicking the sugar you can still see an overwhelming change in your body and life.
posted by boots77 at 7:11 AM on April 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

I've cut way down on sugar simply by substituting. I substitute fresh berries in my plain Cheerios for sugary cereals. I substitute a drizzle of honey and some blueberries or raspberries in my plain Greek yogurt for already sweetened yogurt. I substitute a handful of plain nuts for the sweetened peanut granola bars I used to eat. I substitute 1% milk and Stevia in my coffee for sweetened coffee cream. Besides my one cup of coffee in the morning I just drink water all day long. I follow this diet as much as I can all week long, but I think of the weekend as a time to reward myself a little and I might have a coke or a little dessert after dinner. I just started this about 2 weeks ago and I've already lost weight.
posted by daydreamer at 7:22 AM on April 10, 2012

If you want a carrot as well as a stick, I have found that kicking sugar makes all other food totally delicious. It takes a couple of weeks, and then you find that flavours are more intense, sweet foods are sweeter - carrots, fruit, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, nuts are all like candy!

I'm guessing one of the reasons it's so hard for you to kick it is the same reason it was hard for me. Sugary foods are a quick source of dense calories. Which you need, given your exercise patterns. If you are trying to kick sugar but not replacing those calories with sufficient other foods, you will fail. And sufficient other foods probably means a LOT more food than you think it does. I'm a woman who does a bit less exercise than you, and I still find it really hard to meet my caloric needs when I'm not eating chocolate and desserts. I've only managed it this time by basically eating ALL THE TIME. And I'm still losing weight. (Although in my case, I'm having to eat low-fat too, due to gallstone problems, which does contribute).
posted by lollusc at 7:37 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've cut out added sugar over the years, basically by substituting, and now I don't even like things like sweetened drinks or a lot of other sweetened things.

I still had cravings until I started eating more lentils (and beans, but I'm kind of lazy and lentils require less work than dried beans.) Not sure why - maybe the fiber? - but I eat lentils in some form almost every day now and almost never have cravings, but when I do, I can eat some dark chocolate and it takes cares of it. I like to take roasted chick peas to work to snack on - that really helps when someone brings in donuts or something. I have no self control over that kind of thing.

I have sugary desserts at restaurants if there is something I particularly want to try, but otherwise at home I have things like berries and yogurt if anything instead.
posted by fromageball at 7:41 AM on April 10, 2012

How are you getting your sugar? If you cut out sugary beverages (soda and juice), sweetened processed foods (yogurt, ice cream, twinkies) then you could probably eat a chocolate bar every day. I don't think a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee or honey in your yogurt will hurt you. You need to be on the lookout for sugar bombs - and you can only do this by reading labels, because our tastebuds do not always correctly register the amount.
posted by yarly at 7:41 AM on April 10, 2012

Seconding hansbrough and lollusc. My diet and exercise are somewhat similar to yours and when I'm not getting enough to eat, I crave, crave, crave sugary things. When I eat more other food, particularly protein, I'm just not that excited about sugar.
posted by lab.beetle at 7:48 AM on April 10, 2012

You say you know your cholesterol levels are fine, does this mean you recently had blood work done? Do you know what your fasting blood glucose levels were? You could talk to your doctor about your diet, and see if you are actually at risk for insulin resistence syndrome. Being overweight is not the only cause of type 2 diabetes.

Like people above me, I have family members who are not fat, have always been in great shape, and had extremely active lifestyles, and have type 2.
posted by inertia at 8:14 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've spent about two weeks on a very low-carb diet, and I've found that eating smallish amounts of dark chocolate or raspberries and blackberries with real whipped cream and cinnamon are sufficient to kill my sugar cravings. I am surprised at how much other food I need to eat to feel full. See how you feel after a week or two of eating much smaller amounts of sugars and starches--I feel much better than I thought I would, and I'm much less sluggish.

Sugar is not your friend, especially if diabetes runs in your family. You can develop the disease even if you're thin and otherwise healthy (my mom did).
posted by zoetrope at 8:35 AM on April 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

After watching "Sugar: The Bitter Truth" (linked above), I cut out all sources of sugar (and juice) in my diet. I didn't reduce the other carbs in my diet, just sugar. After about six months, I had dropped about 20 pounds, and after two years, the weight has stayed off.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 8:41 AM on April 10, 2012

As for the addiction aspect of it, I recommend Overeaters Anonymous, which is not just for overeaters, but for anyone with disordered eating.
posted by QuakerMel at 9:04 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's becoming clear I may need to start thinking of sugar as an addiction rather than just a bad habit. If that's the case, any tips on getting it under control?

Well, if you're anything like me, you're in for a few bland weeks, but that's about it.

I've noticed that my sugar consumption has always had tendency to incrementally increase. That is, you always need a little more sweet stuff to achieve the same level of pleasure. So, inevitably, I've had to kick my habit any number of times.

The remarkable thing is how easy it is, once you accept the blandness. And here's the cool thing. With the sugar gone, and your tastebuds shifting back into non-sugar overload mode, you actually start to taste all manner of subtlety in things.

Good luck.
posted by philip-random at 9:11 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What has worked *really* well for me is to replace sugar with higher-fat savory items, especially when you feel a craving coming on. This is a tremendously fun and tasty game, and in contrast to much "diet" advice, actually very healthy if you mostly stick to healthy fats. I haven't completely eliminated refined sugar, but I used to eat ice cream daily, and I'm at the point where I seldom even want it -- a mango alone is now cloyingly sweet.

Examples of foods to add:
popcorn with real butter or oil
nuts and nut butters (almond and cashew especially)
full-fat Greek yogurt (add a bit of honey or fruit if you need it)
sauteing and roasting veggies in lots of healthy fats, such as olive oil or coconut oil
oatmeal with cream and/or butter (plus berries if you need it, though I've actually gotten very fond of butter + salt/pepper)
the occasional bit of high quality dark chocolate

I also like adding spices such as cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg to dishes that are traditionally sweet. If you find you really need a sweetener for things like baked goods, barley malt is the best one; fruit juices in small amounts can also work well.

For literature on the subject, Gary Taubes is quite good -- he's done articles in the NYTimes magazine about both sugar and fat.
posted by susanvance at 10:59 AM on April 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Some articles on this were linked to above, but the most terrifying thing to me was definitely the sugar -> Alzheimer's link.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:03 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just read "The United States of Diabesity" in the Lifetime Fitness magazine -- it appears to be kind of a summary of a new book by Mark Hyman, M.D. called The Blood Sugar Solution. Lots of scary stuff about the chronic diseases caused by out-of-control blood sugar/insulin resistence.
posted by pardonyou? at 11:43 AM on April 10, 2012

xkcd offers the Cadbury Egg equivalent measure unit of sugar. Might be an effective way to think about all the sugar you're eating - find something that is obviously a eat-very-rarely thing (like a Cadbury Egg) and see how many grams of sugar it has, then compare that to how many grams are in whatever you're eating the rest of the day.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:41 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

How old are you? Your body may be able to process all that sugar now and maintain your healthy BMI and lifestyle, but your are establishing habits that will continue past the point that your body can keep up. By the time you realize that your body is slowing down, it may be really hard to change your diet and habits.
posted by jpdoane at 12:46 PM on April 10, 2012

If you slow down on physical activity, which *many* of us do at some age, watch your weight.

Other than that, if you're measurably healthy, and have been eating this way for awhile, it seems that the diet is probably just fine for you.
posted by talldean at 1:12 PM on April 10, 2012

When I was in my 20s, I was much the same -- I was a road racer, so I rode my bicycle about 250 miles per week; 6' and 135 lbs, and ate nothing but bread, pasta and sugar (well, that's how it seemed at the time). I was fit and healthy, so what's the problem?

Twenty years later I was 170 lbs. but I was still fit and healthy, so what's the problem? My GP pointed out that my fasting blood glucose has been on a steady climb over the years, along with lipds and cholesterol, and my blood pressure was almost high enough for medication. In other words, metabolic syndrome, even though I was not overweight.

I cut back on carbs and salt; in 6 months I lost 15 lbs. and my blood levels are returning to normal. I've never felt better -- but how I miss bread!
posted by phliar at 2:16 PM on April 10, 2012

In addition to some of the excellent resources mentioned, check out this video which ultimately led me to this blog on Paleo/Primal eating. My personal results have been excellent.

My experience - until you emotionally connect sugar with a kind of poison it is difficult to moderate. Many of the resources above help make that connection.
posted by jbradley at 5:28 PM on April 10, 2012

I agree with others above that you might be hungry. Try adding more healthy fats and fiber to your meal times, as well as whole grains. Make sure to always have a healthy, filling snack available. Just this week I noticed I was dipping into the office candy supply much more than usual, so have nipped that in the bud by bringing in a trail mix of cashews, almonds and dark chocolate pieces. I do into that when I get a sugar craving. Compared to that yummy, satisfying snack, the office candy just seems gross.

If you're really going to do this, watch out for beer. If you're a big beer drinker, try subbing in red wine. That obviously has lots of sugar as well, but I think it's easier to go over board on beer.

I'd like to add another data point to the type II thing: my dad is one of four brothers; the two thinnest brothers are the ones with diabetes. From what I've read, the whole diabetes/obesity thing is more an issue of correlation than causation. A thin person with a very unhealthy diet (and there are lots of those people out there) is just as susceptible to diabetes as a heavy person. It's about the food you eat, not what you weigh.
posted by imalaowai at 9:39 PM on April 10, 2012

When I'm having a sugar craving, I find it helpful to first think about whether I'm actually just thirsty, which happens a lot. And if that's not the case, sometimes I substitute something that is sweet but less sugary or fatty—chocolate milk instead of a milkshake, grapes instead of candy, etc.
posted by squasher at 4:15 PM on April 28, 2012

Do you eat a lot of sugar because you are active, or are you active because you eat a lot of sugar?

I have don't a ton of reading and research on the topic, my opinion is that carbs and sugar should be utilized based on activity level.

As other have already said, Lustig and Taubes are the best that I have read on this subject.

The more important factor in terms of health, that no one has seemed to mention yet, is inflammation. If you avoid inflammatory foods, like low fat dairy, grains etc then you will probably be ok, but by the sounds of it you are eating a lot of processed foods which usually are very inflammatory.

If you were to just use straight glucose (dextrose) then that would probably be better. Other sources of carbs that are good are roots and tubers like yams, taro etc.

Calories and macronutrients do matter but food quality matters a heck of a lot more.
posted by justhamade at 12:18 AM on May 4, 2012

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