If you feel like you're in a constant state of sugar rush, step away from the candy and take a closer look at how sugar (of any kind!) affects your body. Plus, find ways to kick the habit for good
You've heard the rumors—sugar addiction is as real as drug addiction, and the sweet stuff actually stimulates your brain in the same way as cocaine. (Yep, sugar is actually one of The 7 Most Addictive Legal Substances.) And science says it's more than just rumor. The draw of sweet reward is too strong a force to compete with even the toughest of willpowers. If you think you're immune to the allure just because you're avoiding the candy aisle, you might be surprised to find sugar lurking in everything from pasta to yogurt, and even sushi. What does that mean? Well, Americans are far too hopped up on sugar.
Sugar comes in many forms, so learning how to spot it isn't exactly simple. Sugar is naturally occurring in some fruits, vegetables, and dairy, and can be processed from the sugar cane plant into granules and syrups. It's also found in natural syrups made from honey, maple, date, or brown rice.
On a molecular level, your body reads it all the same, as a mixture of glucose and fructose molecules, but that doesn't mean a bowl of fruit is the same as a slice of cake. Thanks to the water, protein, and fiber in fruit, an apple won't raise your blood sugar as high as a piece of chocolate cream pie. It's this factor—the rate at which your blood sugar rises and falls—that makes all the difference when it comes to sugar's impact on your body. (Surprised? Here's how to Become More Sugar-Savvy.)
You might have heard that frequent sugar consumption has been linked to Alzheimer's and heart disease, and that your sweet tooth can actually make you look (and feel) older! (Bookmark this now: How to Reverse Sugar Damage On Your Skin.) If those long-term effects weren't enough, you should know that sugar takes a toll on your body the instant you lick your lips. We talked to the pros to find just how sugar is affecting your body from head to toe.
"It starts right when anything sweet touches the tip of your tongue. You're sending signals to your brain that's similar to a satisfaction and rewards sensation," says Amanda Foti, R.D.N. Your brain releases dopamine, the same hormone you experience when you're in love, or if you ingest a methamphetamine drug, and you'll quickly begin to crave more.
"When your body digests sugar molecules such as fructose or glucose, they bind onto proteins and fats and form new molecules called glycation end products, or AGEs," says David E. Bank, a dermatologist in Mount Kisco, NY and Shape advisory board member. As AGEs collect in your cells, they start to destroy skin's support system, collagen and elastin, which are the proteins responsible for keeping the elasticity in your skin and warding off wrinkles and sagging.
The pancreas goes into S.O.S. mode by releasing its stores of insulin, a hormone that takes glucose and transfers it to cells throughout the body to be used as energy, in an attempt to bring down blood sugar. When sugar is eaten in excess, the pancreas has to work harder to keep up and produce more insulin. If overworked, the organ can shut down and stop producing insulin altogether, ultimately accounting for type 2 diabetes.
"Sugar contributes to inflammation of arterial walls," says Marci Clow, R.D., a senior dietician at vitamin manufacturer Rainbow Light. "When insulin spikes, it damages the lining of the blood vessels and can cause can heart damage." Too much sugar can also lead to weight gain, which, combined with insulin resistance, contributes to metabolic syndrome and will increase your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Artificial sweeteners, which (confusingly) often contrain naturally occuring sugar alcohols, don't initally cause your blood sugar to spike as high as completely natural sugars, but the trick here is that these faux sugars cannot be completely broken down and absorbed by your body. This can cause digestive stress, bloating, or even a laxative effect.
The sugar your body doesn't immediately use as energy (read: doesn't burn), is stored as fat. Those love handles you can't seem to wittle away might have more to do with your candy habit than your gym rut.
"Inflammation and weight gain can greatly impact the health of your joints, and both can be caused by sugar," says Clow. The same AEGs that destroy collagen in your skin also destroy the collagen the surrounds and protects your joints.
"What's damaging to the body is how high your blood sugar level gets, and how many times throughout the day you're doing that," says Foti, "A little bit of glucose throughout the day won't be as bad as one big spike."
How to Successfully Cut Back On the Sweet Stuff
The latest USDA Dietary Guidelines recommended that less than 10 percent of your daily calories come from added sugars. Keep that goal within reach by following these tips.
Stick with one serving of fruit when making smoothies. Try setting your ingredients out on a plate instead of dumping everything into the blender to help you better visualize the quanity of food your consuming. And forget about juicing. That process strips fruit of its fiber (a key component in preventing blood sugar spikes).
Double check nutrition labels so you know exactly what kind of sugar you're eating and how much. Sugar alcohols, for example, are not counted toward the total grams of sugars, but are listed in their own category under carbohydrates—something you could easily miss.
If you wanna kick a serious sugar habit, don't even think about going cold-turkey. "Especially if you've been eating sugar every day for years, understand that cravings will happen and focus on taking small steps," says Foti. Instead of having chocolate every day, try enjoying a piece of dark chocolate every other day, then work your way back incrementally. (And remember that you're not alone. Find company in The 11 Stages of Giving Up Sugar That Sugar Addicts Know All Too Well.)
Wherever you fall on the scale of sugar savvy to sugar crazy, know that it's OK to induldge smartly (I mean you wouldn't want to miss out on all of chocolate's amazing health benefits!), just remember how potent those little white granules of sweetness can be.