David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.
Why Is Sugar Bad For You?
If you know anything at all about eating healthily you’ll be aware that eating a lot of sugar is not a good idea. But just why is sugar bad for you? And are there any healthy alternatives you can use instead to satisfy that sweet tooth? In this article I’ll attempt to answer both of those questions.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Three hundred years ago the average person consumed about 4 lb of sugar per year. Now it’s over 150 lb. And some people have twice that amount. No wonder the health of the nation is suffering so badly.
We like sugar because it tastes good, and a small amount of it won’t do you any harm. But in quantities like this it will have a devastating effect on your long term health.
The biggest problem with sugar is that it’s everywhere. It’s not just the sugar we put in our tea and coffee, and the cakes, biscuits, candy bars, puddings and deserts we eat. Sugar is also used as an additive in virtually all processed, canned, packaged and convenience foods, as well as in dressings, sauces and condiments. And most soft drinks are packed full of it. So a lot of the sugar we consume we do so without even realizing it.
Check the labels on the foods you buy for their sugar content. Anything with more than 15g of total sugars per 100g is considered to be high in sugar. Less than 5g per 100g is low in sugar. If you eat mostly natural, unpackaged foods, you’ll avoid most of this added sugar. But if you are purchasing packaged and convenience foods, try to minimize your intake of sugar from these sources by choosing only products that are low in sugar.
So Why Is Sugar Bad For You?
Sucrose (normal table sugar) is a disaccharide, consisting of two monosaccharide sugars (glucose and fructose) joined together. So it’s 50% glucose and 50% fructose; and these two simple sugars are metabolized very differently.
Glucose is used as the prime source of energy by every cell, tissue and organ of your body, and any excess that is surplus to immediate requirements is turned into glycogen for storage in either the liver or the muscles. Once glycogen stores are full, however, the rest is turned into fat.
Fructose on the other hand cannot be used as a direct energy source, and has to be metabolized almost entirely by the liver. Here it can be turned into glucose (and glycogen), but again any excess is turned into fat. And because virtually all of the fructose you consume is being handled by the liver, a much higher percentage of it ends up as fat.
When you obtain your dietary sugars from whole food sources, such as whole grain products and potatoes (which contain starches that are broken down into glucose), or fruits and vegetables (which contain varying amounts of sucrose together with free fructose and glucose), they come packaged together with a good amount of fiber and other nutrients. This, coupled with the fact that they are broken down more slowly in the digestive tract, makes them a valuable part of a well balanced diet.
Refined table sugar on the other hand contains no nutrients whatsoever (hence the term "empty calories"), and on top of that it is broken down very rapidly in the digestive tract. So it enters the bloodstream very quickly, causing a rapid spike in the hormone insulin.
It’s the job of insulin to keep your blood sugar levels under control, and it does this by storing the excess either as glycogen or as fat. So these big spikes in insulin mean that a lot more of the calories you consume will be turned into fat.
So eating a lot of sugar on a regular basis will result in both increased levels of circulating fats (the bad ones – LDL cholesterol and triglycerides), and more fat on the body. This will give an increased risk of heart disease, and it will also lead to insulin resistance, which means more insulin will be required to do the same job. Over time this will lead to hyperinsulinemia (constantly raised insulin levels), which can then lead to type 2 diabetes.
On top of all this, there are many other ways in which sugar can damage your health too. These include the following:
- It suppresses the immune system
- It has a deleterious effect on the nervous system
- It promotes inflammation in the body
- It suppresses the release of growth hormone
- It promotes glycation (where glucose becomes bound to proteins in the body) which accelerates ageing
- It rots the teeth
- It can promote hyperactivity, anxiety and difficulty in concentrating in children
- It feeds bad bacteria and yeasts
- It feeds cancer cells
- It acidifies the blood, which can lead to osteoporosis, gallstones, kidney stones etc.
- It depletes the body of stored nutrients
- It is habit forming – so the more you eat the more you want
As you can now see, the regular consumption of sugar can have very serious consequences on your long-term health. So if you want to stay healthy (or improve an existing health problem) it’s essential to minimize the amount you consume – or even eliminate it entirely.
So What Are The Alternatives?
But if you still want to eat something sweet occasionally, the following three products can be used in moderation in place of regular sugar:
This is the only really healthy alternative to sugar. It contains glucose and fructose, but also provides significant amounts of vitamins, minerals and enzymes, as well as having prebiotic and immune enhancing properties. Obviously you should not eat too much of it, but a small amount can have very positive health benefits. It has to be raw though; avoid commercially produced "pure honey", as this loses virtually all of its nutritional properties during the processing procedure.
This is the by-product of the sugar manufacturing process. It contains sucrose as well as free glucose and fructose, but it also provides a good amount of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, manganese, copper and zinc, as well as trace amounts of vitamins.
This is made from the sap of maple trees. It contains sucrose, but again provides various essential minerals, so can be reserved for occasional use.
Agave should be avoided as it is high in fructose and has little nutritional benefit.
Stevia, however, is a good natural sweetener that is many times sweeter than sugar, and is calorie free.
So now you know why sugar is bad for you, and you have a few good alternatives you can use occasionally instead. But when you cut out sugar from your diet you’ll find that after a while your cravings will disappear, and you really won’t need it any more anyway.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on September 22, 2014:
Thanks Maggie. Glad you found this interesting and hope you will be able to cut down. I still eat some sugar but not much.
Maggie.L from UK on September 21, 2014:
Really useful information here. I have a really sweet tooth and am trying to cut down on sugar. Reading your article about what it can actually do to your body will hopefully motivate me to cut down.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on May 04, 2013:
Thanks sarifearnbd. Glad you liked it.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on May 03, 2013:
Good to hear from you vandynegl, and thanks for commenting. Glad you liked the article.
vandynegl from Ohio Valley on May 03, 2013:
Thank you for sharing this! I plan to share it on my community Facebook site. I'm glad you added that sugar raises the bad cholesterol levels (so many do not realize this). Also, I notice that you also stated that it promotes inflammation, which is very true, since it makes your body more acidic.
Your alternatives are great! I use honey and occasionally maple syrup. I have also used Brown Rice Syrup since it is lower in sugar levels than honey.