Sugar is *Really* Bad for You

As Part 1 of the Sugar Series, we tell you the truth behind the sugar you unconsciously consume every day.

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Granola bars, salad dressings, yogurt… It seems like processed sugar is unavoidable no matter how healthy we try to be. The Health Promotion Board of Singapore recommends keeping sugar intake to no more than 10% of our daily energy intake, which is around 9 to 11 teaspoons of sugar per day for adults.

Yet, we may not be aware of how much sugar we consume every day, even though we know that it’s bad for us (more sugar leads to more weight, as we’re taught from a young age) and try to eat “sugary foods” in moderation. Let’s zoom in on the effects sugar has on our overall health.

Effects of Sugar Consumption on our Skin

  • Sugar causes skin damage: Sugar damages our skin through a natural process called glycation. The more sugar you eat, the more harmful free radicals known as Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) accumulate and damage the proteins around them. 
  • Sugar is aging us: Collagen and elastin, which keeps skin looking firm and elastic and helps maintain a healthy and youthful complexion, are vulnerable to damage. As a result, you may see fine lines, sagging and wrinkles on your skin.
  • Sugar causes acne and other types of skin inflammation: A study found a “significant association between current acne and the consumption of fatty and sugary products.” When we consume sugar, insulin is released from our pancreas to absorb the sugar and transferred to our liver. An overproduction of insulin causes inflammation which causes conditions such as acne, dermatitis, and rosacea. 
  • Sugar causes oily skin: Sugary foods increase your blood sugar and activate hormones in the body that stimulate oil production (known as sebum) in the skin. Producing too much sebum leads to oily skin and clogged pores, which may also lead to acne.

Effects of Sugar Consumption on our Body

  • Increased hunger and weight gain: We consume a lot of extra calories through added sugars. Sugary snacks may taste good, but they don’t really fill our stomachs. This is because the body burns through sugar quicker than it does with protein, fiber and healthy fats. This even leads to mindless and compulsive snacking, which further causes weight gain.
  • Obesity: Sugars like sucrose or fructose turns to fat in the body. Current evidence also suggests that increasing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and food is associated with overweightness and obesity in children. However, there are doubts as to whether it causes Type 1 or 2 diabetes. But it is clear that consuming food and drinks loaded with added sugars will lead to high glucose levels, which is one of the causes of diabetes. 
  • High blood pressure: Studies have shown that consumption of sugar is associated with high blood pressure and a higher incidence of hypertension, though a direct cause-and effect relationship hasn’t been found yet. But it has been proven that extra insulin in your bloodstream causes artery walls to get more inflamed and grow thicker than normal, which may lead to heart issues. 
  • Teeth problems: Bacteria that cause cavities will eat the sugar lingering in your mouth after you eat something sweet, which may cause tooth decay and dental cavities. 
  • Compromised immune system: It takes about 75 grams of sugar to weaken our immune system for about five hours afterwards by threatening our white blood cells.

Effects of Sugar Consumption on our Mood

Credit: Connie Bennett and Isabella Bannerman.
  • Sugar makes us more irritable and fatigued: A bad mood could be a sign that you are eating too much sugar. Have you ever heard of the “Sugar Rollercoaster”? That is when eating a high-sugar meal spikes your blood sugar but after a while, your body’s energy levels crash as it tries to process all the sugar. If you eat more sugar to try to feel “better”, you will continue to cause your body’s sugar level to spike and fall. This leaves you feeling sluggish, irritable and even more stressed. See if you feel irritable an hour after you eat a snack or if there are certain periods in the day you crave something sugary. This could be a sign of excess sugar intake. 
  • It is debatable whether sugar lowers our concentration: Our brain is dependent on sugar to operate and low sugar levels are linked to loss of energy for brain function and lack of attention. Studies do not seem to support a cause-and-effect link between sugar overconsumption with hyperactivity (in children) but it still causes a lot more physical health problems.

Sugar Addiction and Sugar Cravings

Credit: Sheri Silver on Unsplash

The idea of sugar addiction is quite new, but research done on rats show that like other addictive substances, sugar is able to induce bingeing, craving and withdrawal anxiety. However, there has not been enough research conducted on humans. Perhaps it is better to describe the urge to consume sugary foods as “sugar cravings”, which don’t fit into the clinical definition of addiction. 

Still, the reward pathways in the human brain (meaning the release of dopamine linked to sugar ingestion, causing us to form a habit of eating more sugary food to get that ‘reward’) have remained unchanged by evolution). It’s likely many other organisms have similar reward pathways in their brains. This means that the biological impacts of sugar withdrawal seen in animals are likely to occur to some degree in humans too because our brains have similar reward pathways. 

A sugar high is not worth the long-term problems that come with it. For tips on how to cut down on sugar consumption, read "Cut It Out".