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The Effects of Sugar on our Body

Updated on 27. Dec. 2018

Americans consume more sugar than any other population in the world, with the average American consuming almost 130 grams of sugar per day. That is the equivalent of consuming more than three 12-ounce cans of soda every day.1 So what does all of this sugar do to our bodies?


Sugar has a history of addiction, leading many conquerors to travel all over the Caribbean in search of suitable land to plant the sugar cane needed to satisfy the cravings of the people back home, leading to the colonization of many islands and the enslavement of hundreds of thousands. Since those times our sugar consumption has steadily risen over the years, when first introduced sugar was only for royalty or the extremely rich, now it is a staple in the diets for almost everyone. In 1870, the average man was consuming 47 pounds of sugar annually.2 Today that number has spiked, reaching 130 pounds of sugar per person per year.1  


For years, doctors and researchers have been linking sugar with chronic diseases. So why is it that sugar consumption is still such a big problem? Many researchers that are focused on sugar as the cause of obesity and chronic illnesses have been overshadowed by the research done around fat, cholesterol, and carbohydrates as the biggest culprits to our health. Food producers have been able to create a new market with low-fat and low-carb foods, often adding large amounts of sugar to these foods to make them taste better. With increasing research about sugar, the evidence of sugar’s ill effects on our bodies is beginning to get quite alarming. Studies conducted in 2015 found that children who cut back on the number of sugary drinks they consumed were able to slow down the rate of fat accumulation and weight gain.3


Other studies have found that increased sugar intake raises our risk of metabolic syndrome, some cancers, heart disease, and diabetes. One of the problems with sugar is that it represents empty calories, so when we consume it our bodies burn it instead of the fat we are hoping to lose, effectively stopping weight loss in its tracks. The sugar tricks our bodies into thinking we need more food, as it changes the hunger feelings we get.


One of the problems we’re facing with sugar is that we do not always know it is in our food, as it is often added to foods to help make it taste better or to preserve it. Many foods people believe are healthy, such as greek yogurt, tend to have high levels of added sugar. Even in some bread and pasta, sugar is added as a way to make products with whole grains taste better to us.


This is not just a diet problem; it is also a psychological problem as we can become addicted to sugar. A study conducted in 2013 found that rats were more addicted to Oreo cookies than they were to heroin and cocaine when offered both choices.4 Sugar activates the reward system in our brains, telling us that what we just ate was good and we should have it again. When we eat sugar, our dopamine receptors in the brain are activated, telling us we need more (effectively getting us addicted.) Typically, when we eat a meal that is balanced, our dopamine levels will rise, but if we eat that meal every day for a period of time the dopamine levels will slowly taper off. When we eat sugar continually for a period of time, our brain does not have the same response, the dopamine levels continue to rise as we eat more and more sugar, causing our brain to react the same way it would if we were ingesting a drug.


Now all of this might sound a bit alarming, but you do not need to completely cut sugar out of your diet to become healthy. The FDA and the World Health Organization have, for the first time ever, recommended that we change our diets so we are only getting 10% of our total daily calories from sugar. This works about to being no more than 50g per day for a healthy adult.


When purchasing packaged foods, be sure to look at the labels to see the amount of sugar per serving. Avoid foods that have high levels of sugar with no real nutrition. You can also cut down on your sugar intake by choosing, for example, plain yogurt over flavored varieties. Plain yogurt still has sugar, but it is not added sugar it is the sugar naturally found in dairy products. If you are craving something sweet, try reaching for a piece of fresh fruit instead of a packaged snack.


  1. Walton, Alice G. “How Much Sugar are Americans Eating? [Infographic].” ForbesWomen. Forbes, 30 Aug. 2012. Web.
  2. Cohen, Rich. “Sugar Love.” National Geographic. National Geographic Partners, August 2013. Web.
  3. Rabin, Roni Caryn. “Placing a Cap on Americans’ Consumption of Added Sugar.” NYT Well. The New York Times Company, 9 Nov. 2015. Web.
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