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Article by Sylvie Martin

What are the health risks of sugar and how can you reduce your intake?

Updated on 3 January 2024.

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Sugar dangerDespite all the dangers of added sugar to human health, it is present in almost all the products we consume on a daily basis.

Due to lack of time and the constraints of work, many people, especially in Western societies, have a diet – and therefore a calorie intake – based largely on fast food and processed foods, which unfortunately contain significant quantities of this toxic substance.

In figures, the world’s population consumes 175 million tonnes of sugar a year, an average of 25.5 kilos per capita.
Sugar's harmful effects on the body
But this average does not reflect the disparities between countries.

In industrialized countries, daily sugar consumption is close to 100g of sugar per day per inhabitant, whereas it should not exceed the 50g recommended by the WHO.

In France, sugar consumption has remained relatively stable in recent years, ranging from 25 to 35 kilos of sugar per person per year.

This is well above the world average of 20kg.

The scientific community and health professionals believe that sugar consumption is a major cause of obesity, as well as many chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

So here are 11 of the dangers of sugar to your health.

1. Weight gain

Obesity rates are rising all over the world, and added sugar, particularly from sweetened beverages, is thought to be one of the main culprits.

Sweetened beverages such as sodas, juices and sweetened teas contain fructose.
Compared with glucose, the main type of sugar found in starchy foods, fructose consumption increases hunger and the desire to eat. [1].

In excess, it can lead to resistance to leptin, the hormone that regulates hunger [2].

Research has consistently shown that people who drink sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda and juice, are more overweight than those who do not. [3].

These people are also more likely to develop visceral fat, which is associated with conditions such as diabetes and heart disease [4].
Sugar in juices and soft drinks

2. Heart disease

Heart disease is the world’s leading cause of death.

And there’s a strong link between high-sugar diets and heart disease.

In fact, numerous studies have shown that high-sugar diets can be a direct cause of heart disease, leading to a number of risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and high levels of triglycerides and blood sugar. [5].

Excessive consumption of sugar, particularly sweetened beverages, has also been linked to atherosclerosis, a disease that results in the loss of elasticity in arteries due to sclerosis, itself caused by the accumulation of fatty substances (mainly LDL cholesterol) in the inner lining (intima) of arteries. [6].

In a study carried out on a sample of over 30,000 people, researchers observed that people with a percentage of their calorie intake from sugar of between 17% and 21% had a 38% higher risk of dying from heart disease than those with a calorie intake consisting of just 8% added sugar. [7].

To understand why we consume too much sugar without even realizing it, a single glass of soda can contain up to 4.3 pieces of sugar – half of what you should normally consume per day.

As a reminder, the WHO (World Health Organization) recommends that a human being should consume no more than 50g of sugar a day, or the equivalent of 8.4 lumps.

This means that just one sugary drink a day could cover or even exceed your daily sugar intake ceiling.

3. Non-alcoholic steatosis (NASH) or fatty liver disease

High fructose intake has always been associated with an increased risk of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.

This is a disease characterized by the excessive accumulation of fat in the liver, hence its other name: fatty liver disease.

Unlike other types of sugar such as glucose, which are absorbed by different cells in the body, fructose is almost exclusively broken down by the liver to be either converted into energy or stored as glycogen.
However, the liver can only store a limited amount of glycogen.

Beyond this limit, excess quantities are converted into fat.

Consuming large quantities of added sugar in the form of fructose overloads the liver, and will inevitably lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. [8].

Studies have shown that daily consumption of sugary drinks increases the risk of developing this disease by 56%. [9]
Sugar and fatty liver disease

4. Diabetes

According to statistics, the worldwide prevalence of diabetes has more than doubled in the last 30 years. [10].

And while diabetes can be caused by many factors, there is a clear link between excessive sugar consumption and the risk of diabetes.

Obesity, often caused by excessive sugar consumption, is considered the most important risk factor for diabetes. [11].

In addition, prolonged sugar consumption leads to resistance to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.

This condition causes blood sugar levels to rise, greatly increasing the risk of diabetes.

The risk of developing diabetes increases by 1.1% for every 150 calories of sugar consumed per day. [12].

Other studies have also shown that people who consume sugary drinks, including fruit juices, are more likely to develop this disease [13, 14].
Sugar and diabetes

5. Cancer

Consuming too much sugar can increase the risk of developing certain cancers.

Firstly, because a diet rich in sugar can lead to obesity, which considerably increases the risk of cancer. [15].

Secondly, sugar-rich diets increase inflammation in the body and can also cause insulin resistance, both of which increase the risk of cancer [16].

And as this study of over 430,000 people points out, consumption of added sugar is strongly associated with an increased risk of esophageal cancer, pleural cancer and small bowel cancer [17].

Another study conducted in the same context showed that women who ate buns and cookies three or more times a week were 1.42 times more likely to develop endometrial cancer than women who ate them less than 0.5 times a week [18].

6. Cellular aging

Telomeres are small structures found at the ends of chromosomes, which are molecules that contain some or all of your DNA genetic information.

Telomeres act as protective caps that prevent chromosomes from deteriorating or fusing together.

With age, they gradually shorten, leading to cell aging. [19].

And while telomere shortening is a natural and irreversible phenomenon, bad habits and an unhealthy lifestyle can accelerate the process.

Consuming large quantities of sugar accelerates telomere shortening, and thus speeds up the cellular aging process [20].

This was demonstrated in a study of 5,309 adults, which examined the relationship between regular consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and reduced telomere length and premature cellular ageing. [21].

7. Acne

A diet rich in refined carbohydrates, including sugary foods and beverages, has been associated with a higher risk of developing acne.

Foods with a high glycemic index (GI) are known to raise blood sugar levels more quickly than those with a low GI.

The sweeter the foods, the faster they raise blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to increased androgen secretion, oil production and inflammation.

Factors that all play a role in the onset and development of acne [22].

Numerous studies have demonstrated the causal link between high glycemic index diets and the predisposition to develop acne [23].

In this context, researchers conducted a study on a sample of 2300 adolescents who frequently consumed added sugar.

The results corresponded to a 30% higher risk of developing acne. [24].

On the other hand, numerous demographic studies have shown that rural communities that consume traditional, unprocessed foods have very low acne rates, compared with urban dwellers. [25].

All these studies agree that diets rich in processed foods and sugar contribute to the development of acne.

8. Skin aging

Skin aging is a natural phenomenon that occurs with age.

However, as is the case with cellular aging, certain poor dietary choices can accelerate this process, leading to the early appearance of visible signs of aging such as wrinkles.

The chemical reaction between sugar and proteins gives rise to compounds known as advanced glycation products (AGEs).

These compounds are suspected of playing a key role in accelerated skin aging. [26].

Advanced glycation products (AGEs) damage collagen and elastin, two proteins that promote skin elasticity and help it retain its youthful appearance.

When collagen and elastin are damaged, skin loses its firmness and begins to sag.

Eating a diet rich in refined carbohydrates and sugar leads to premature aging of the skin, by increasing the production of these advanced glycation products (AGEs)[27].

This fact was confirmed by a study which concluded that women who consumed more carbohydrates, including added sugars, had a more wrinkled appearance than women who followed a diet rich in protein and carbohydrates.

Other researchers also concluded that a lower carbohydrate intake was associated with a better appearance of aging skin [28].

9. Loss of energy

High-sugar foods cause blood sugar levels to spike.

In other words, they rapidly raise blood sugar levels, resulting in an increase in energy.

But it’s an ephemeral increase in energy!

In fact, products high in sugar but low in protein, fiber or fat produce a brief burst of energy, quickly followed by a sharp drop in blood sugar levels. [29].

Frequent fluctuations in blood sugar levels can lead to major fluctuations in energy levels [30].

To avoid this energy-draining cycle, choose low-sugar, high-fiber carbohydrate sources.

Combining carbohydrates with proteins or fats is another excellent way to keep your blood sugar and energy levels stable.

For example, eating an apple with a small handful of almonds is a great snack for prolonged, steady energy levels.

10. Depression

A healthy diet can help improve your mood, but a diet high in sugar and processed foods can increase your chances of developing depression.

According to some research, eating lots of processed foods, including high-sugar products such as cakes and sugary drinks, can increase your risk of developing depression [31, 32].

A study of 8,000 people over 22 years confirms this hypothesis.

Researchers found that men who consumed 67 grams or more of sugar a day were 23% more likely to develop depression than men who consumed less than 40 grams a day. [33].

In the same context, another study of over 69,000 women showed that those with higher intakes of added sugars had a significantly higher risk of depression than those with lower intakes [34].

11. Other health risks associated with sugar

In addition to the risks listed above, sugar can harm your body in many other ways. Too much added sugar can:

  • Increase the risk of kidney disease ;
  • Harm dental health;
  • Increase the risk of developing gout;
  • Accelerate cognitive decline.

The above list of health hazards associated with added sugar is by no means exhaustive.

Research is not yet finished, and from time to time new discoveries are made about its impact on health.

How can you reduce your sugar intake?

Excessive added sugar has many negative effects on health.

And while consuming moderate amounts is perfectly healthy, all the evidence points to the need to really cut down on your sugar intake.

Fortunately for those who can’t opt for an outright sugar-free diet, they can simply focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods.

This type of food is capable of reducing the amount of sugar in their diet.

In any case, here are a few tips for reducing your intake and preventing yourself from the dangers of added sugar:

  • Eliminate sodas, energy drinks, juices and sweetened teas, and drink water or unsweetened beverages instead;
  • Drink black coffee without sugar or use a natural sweetener;
  • For breakfast, swap your morning cereal for a bowl of oatmeal topped with nut butter and fresh berries, or a fresh vegetable omelette;
  • Look for cereals, granolas and granola bars with less than 4 grams of sugar per serving;
  • Use olive oil and vinegar instead of sweet dressings;
  • Choose marinades, nut butter, ketchup and marinara sauce with no added sugar;
  • Instead of jelly, slice fresh bananas on your peanut butter sandwich;
  • Use natural nut butters instead of sweet spreads like Nutella;
  • Instead of buying sugar-laden flavored yogurt, choose plain yogurt and sweeten it with fresh or frozen berries;
  • Eat whole fruit rather than sweetened fruit smoothies;
  • Replace sweets with a homemade mix of fruit, nuts and a few dark chocolate chips;
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages sweetened with soda, juice, honey, sugar or agave;
  • Focus on fresh, whole ingredients by limiting your shopping list.

The best way to limit your intake of added sugar is to start by preparing your own meals at home and avoiding industrialized and processed products.

To keep control, but also to learn more about the main sources of sugar in your diet, you could keep a food diary.

In a nutshell

Eating too much added sugar can have many adverse effects on your health.

An excess of sugary foods and drinks can lead to weight gain, blood sugar problems and an increased risk of heart disease, among other dangerous conditions.

For all these reasons, keeping your intake as low as possible is the only way to guard against the health-threatening dangers of sugar.

The tips listed above are a good place to start. You can also consult our tips for a successful sugar-free diet.

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