Following a diet high in sugar, such as those found in sweetened beverages, baked goods, candy, sugary cereals, and ultra-processed foods is a vast contributor factor in weight gain, and chronic health conditions, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Obesity is a complex disease with several causes, one of them being sugar. While an occasional treat won’t kill you, eating high-sugar foods on a regular basis can lead not only to obesity but to a variety of health problems such as heart disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and even worn down tooth enamel.
Aside from that, a high-sugar diet also contributes to weight gain, driving sugar cravings and false hunger cues that make it much harder to stay healthy and fit.
What happens to your body when you eat sugar
A while ago we spoke about what happens to your body when you stop eating sugar. However, now we want to talk about what actually happens to your body when you do eat sugar.
Your body breaks it down via saliva before it leaves your mouth. It then travels through your digestive tract, absorbed into your bloodstream as glucose. From there, your body carries glucose throughout your body, using it as fuel for cells that need energy. When consuming refined carbs (sugar especially) from time to time, this isn’t an issue. However, if you eat sugar and refined carbs regularly, this becomes a problem. This is because they’re already refined, so your digestive system must do minimal work to break these components into glucose. As a result, sugar makes it into your bloodstream pretty quickly, and too much of it will cause a sudden spike in your blood glucose levels.
This leads to high blood sugar levels (also known as hyperglycemia) which damages your organs and blood vessels. Since the body is a smart machine, it already knows this, so when your blood sugar gets too high, your pancreas releases insulin, the hormone that controls how you process sugar.
When insulin takes over, it tells your liver and cells to pull sugar out of your bloodstream and store it, getting your blood sugar levels back to a safe range. If this happens occasionally, it’s not a big deal. However, your body may overcorrect when you eat a lot of sugar at once or constantly. In its rush to bring your blood sugar levels back to normal, insulin can pull too much sugar from your blood and you end up with the opposite, which means low blood sugar. This is what we call a sugar crash. The aftermath of a sugar crush is you feeling sluggish and mentally foggy, with sugar cravings as your body tries to convince you to bring your blood sugar back up.
Again, it is no big deal if this happens once every blue moon. But it’s easy to make it a habit since it becomes a vicious cycle and the longer it goes on, the more desensitized your body becomes to insulin. The result is that the swings between high blood sugar and low blood sugar get worse and worse over time. Your body’s progressive desensitization to sugar is called insulin resistance and it’s a sign of pre-diabetes and a high-risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Aside from these health aspects, sugar and sugar crashes also affect your mood and the way you interact with others. When having a sugar spike you’ll feel more energetic and euphoric, although when experiencing a sugar crash you’ll feel more exhausted, dizzy, and depressed. If this pattern becomes a staple in your life, it can affect your mental health and your daily life, and your relationships.
The obesity-heart disease link with sugar
As you can imagine, eating processed foods and sugars on a daily basis can lead to weight gain and obesity. Excess weight and an inactive lifestyle increase the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. All of those factors make it much more likely that someone will develop cardiovascular disease since they’re the link between obesity and heart disease and all of it is because of sugar. What’s more, obesity by itself increases the risk of heart failure.
Those extra pounds force your heart to work harder since it puts your heart under increased stress, in particular during the relaxation phase of the cardiac cycle (the diastole). As the heart fills with blood, there’s higher pressure. Over time, that is what can cause people to have heart failure symptoms. Where the extra weight is located is what matters the most, since depending on its distribution also affects your risk of developing heart disease. Excess belly fat is associated with greater inflammation, which damages the heart. It also increases triglyceride levels which can contribute to plaque rupturing.
Obesity has also a big impact on your hormonal health and can be associated with several endocrine alterations arising from changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary hormones axes. These include hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, hypogonadism, insulin resistance, period alterations, and growth hormone deficiency.
There are plenty of reasons to aim for a healthy weight and a healthy and active lifestyle and cutting back or fully removing sugar from your diet is a great place to start. Another great starting point is to remove processed foods and change them to whole and nutritious foods. Going for a low-carb approach and moving your body daily can be the next step on your journey to healthy weight loss and a healthy lifestyle.