Health Impacts of Too Much Sugar
You‘ve probably seen headlines and articles saying that sugar is a cause of the rise in cardiovascular diseases and obesity levels in the UK, but what exactly about this innocent looking substance is so harmful to our health? And what health conditions is it actually linked to?
Sugar is made up of glucose and fructose. Fructose is broken down in the liver, whereas glucose is digested in the stomach and requires insulin to metabolise it properly.
Naturally occurring sugar is found in all fruits, vegetables and dairy foods, but in relatively low quantities. In these foods it is accompanied by vitamins, antioxidants, water and fibre, all of which have health benefits. Processed sugar doesn’t have any of these added nutrients, proteins or fats, and is just pure energy, which is why you get an initial boost but then a come-down shortly after eating sugary foods.
Sugar and Diabetes
There is a common belief that sugar is a leading cause of diabetes, which is not strictly true.
Type 1 diabetes is caused by the insulin producing cells in your pancreas being destroyed and is down to genetics, not lifestyle or food choices.
A diet high in processed sugar can lead to insulin resistance however, which in turn can contribute to type 2 diabetes. Insulin controls how the body’s glucose enters the cells and ensures it is burnt off for energy instead of fat. Having too much glucose in the blood stream is toxic and over time cells become resistant to the insulin commands. The pancreas attempts to combat this by producing more insulin, but it cannot keep up with the demand so blood sugar levels continue to rise. Type 2 diabetes is the result.1
You have a higher risk of type 2 diabetes if you are overweight and eat very sugary, high-fat and high-salt foods such as sugary drinks, sweets, chocolate, puddings and junk food. All of these can contribute to obesity and become addictive due to the release of dopamine in the reward centre of the brain when you eat them.2
Another myth is that diabetics shouldn’t eat much fruit because of its sugar content, which can spike blood glucose levels. In truth, most fruit has a low to medium glycaemic index similar to other carbohydrates such as bread. It’s much better to reduce your intake of foods such as fizzy drinks, cakes or biscuits instead of the healthier options of fruit or vegetables.3
Sugar, Cholesterol and Heart Disease
Researchers have found a link between sugar and cholesterol levels, with an increased sugar intake correlating with higher blood triglyceride levels and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels. This is known as dyslipidaemia. Having low HDL levels is a risk factor for heart disease4 as extra triglycerides can clog up the arteries and increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.5
High glucose levels also have a detrimental effect on the heart, causing extra stress and decreasing muscle function.5
Too much sugar consumption can damage your teeth, as it provides a food source for bacteria, which in turn causes cavities that lead to tooth decay.
The kidney’s role is to filter the blood. High blood sugar levels can damage the kidneys through the extra work required in the filtering process, causing some harmful waste products to remain in the bloodstream. Having damaged kidney function can in turn lead to conditions such as kidney disease and ultimately failure.
The breakdown of sugar and resulting quantities of fructose can overload the liver. This fructose is then turned into fat which can block the liver, leading to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). Sugar build-up can also inflame the liver, eventually leading to scar tissue formation called cirrhosis, similar to that from excess alcohol consumption.5
Cutting Down on Sugar
Processed sugar is in many everyday items, such as bread, tomato ketchup, cereals and salad dressings, so is very hard to give up completely. The Action on Sugar campaign recommends that women consume up to 6 teaspoons/100 calories of sugar a day and men should aim for 9 teaspoons/150 calories.6
Renowned chef Jamie Oliver recently directed a documentary looking into the health effects of a high sugar diet and from that put together a Sugar Manifesto outlining his suggestions for cutting down the amount of sugar we as a nation are consuming. His manifesto especially focuses on children’s consumption of soft drinks and how they are contributing to the rising rates of childhood obesity.
Making simple changes to your diet can dramatically reduce your sugar intake. Try swapping fruit juices or smoothies for water with lemon, a biscuit for vegetable sticks and hummus, sugary cereals for eggs, or flavoured yoghurts for plain yoghurt and fresh fruit.
Sugar Free Spicy Stars
Why not get your kids to help you make these sugar free cookies to really get in the Christmas spirit?
- 300g (9oz) plain flour
- 200g (7oz) margarine
- Four tbsps honey
- One tsp ground allspice
- One medium egg
- One tsp vanilla essence
Preheat your oven to 180 deg C/350 deg F/gas mark four. In a small pan, melt your honey and margarine. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. In a separate bowl or cup, beat your egg then stir in. Add your vanilla essence. Sieve your flour and all spice into a bowl, then pour in your liquid. Stir until you have a dough. Roll into a large ball, wrap in cling film and place in the fridge to chill for about an hour.
Lightly dust a clean surface with flour and roll out your dough to about one cm thick. Cut into star shapes and position on a greased baking sheet.
Bake in the centre of the oven for just 10 minutes, then remove and leave to cool. Sprinkle with a little more ground allspice.
The information in our blog articles is for personal use only and not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment plans. We are not medical health practitioners or mental health providers. If you’re worried about a potential medical condition, contact your GP or call an ambulance in an emergency situation.