Research Finds Sugar Changes Metabolism in Even the Healthiest of People

negative effects of sugar

Story at-a-glance -

  • Refined sugar is one of the most dangerous products you can ingest and triggers addiction that is difficult to break, as it affects neurotransmitters in much the same way cocaine does
  • Sugar consumption is strongly linked to the leading causes of death. It triggers metabolic and mitochondrial dysfunction leading to obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease
  • Historical data have demonstrated the sugar industry has manipulated information for decades to increase profits
  • Your best strategy to reduce health care costs is to severely reduce your sugar intake and carefully read labels on any packaged foods for the more than 50 names manufacturers use to disguise sugar

By Dr. Mercola

Sugar is likely one of the most dangerous products you can ingest and may trigger an addiction that is difficult to break. What is so terrifying is that you can find it in almost every processed food you purchase. It hides under a number of different names and affects your body in ways that scientists are continuing to discover. While the media and medical associations have warned about overeating fat and salt, there has been relatively little said about the overabundance of sugar in the American diet.

The sad truth is there are copious numbers of studies spanning decades that demonstrate the damage sugar does to your health, but the industry has managed to bury the evidence, and claim sugar has little to no effect on your health or your weight.

According to one recent study, consumption of sugar is responsible for as much as 40 percent of health care dollars spent each year.1 In the U.S. more than $1 trillion is spent fighting obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. All of these diseases are related to the excessive consumption of sugar.

The foods you eat have an immense impact on your brain, gut health and cellular metabolism, all which impact your health and daily ability to be productive at home and work. Historically, sugar was a treat enjoyed only on special occasions. Today, it's found in almost everything you eat, short of whole foods. It’s in processed foods of all kinds, snacks, drinks, sauces, breads, condiments and deli meats. Even infant formula and baby food is loaded with sugar, which triggers the brain’s reward center, increasing desire for more.

Research quite clearly shows that refined sugar in excessive amounts promotes mitochondrial dysfunction. These little powerhouses provide the energy for your cells, so when they cease to function normally, any number of functions throughout your body may be disrupted. Now, researchers have confirmed that sugar damages cellular function no matter how healthy you were before you began eating poorly.

Sugar Triggers Metabolic Changes That Damage Your Health

In a study from the University of Surrey, researchers asked two groups of men to change their eating habits for three months.2 In the beginning, one group had evidence of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD); the other group did not. Each man went through a 12-week period when he ate 650 calories from sugar each day or no more than 140 calories from sugar each day. The researchers measured levels of fat in the participant's blood and liver.3

What they discovered was not surprising. Those who ate 650 calories of sugar per day for 12 weeks had much higher levels of fat in their blood and liver. The research was designed as a randomized-crossover study, meaning each participant followed both diets and the order they followed the diet was randomly assigned. Lead researcher Bruce Griffin, Ph.D., professor of nutritional metabolism at the University of Surrey, commented on the results, saying:

"Our findings provide new evidence that consuming high amounts of sugar can alter your fat metabolism in ways that could increase your risk of cardiovascular disease."

Fat metabolism is the process fats undergo to be broken down and transported in the blood to cells around your body. The results also showed that when men who began the study with low levels of liver fat ate a diet high in sugar, their blood and liver measurements and fat metabolism became similar to that of men suffering from NAFLD.4 This condition is tied to obesity and affects up to 25 percent of Americans.5

The researchers’ goal was to determine the role sugar has on the metabolism of the liver and how it influences cardiovascular health. What they found was that both groups of men, those with and without NAFLD, showed changes in fat metabolism linked to cardiovascular disease.6

In the past, NAFLD occurred almost exclusively in adults. However, there is evidence to suggest it now occurs in up to 10 percent of children7 ages 2 to 19, and the reason for this is a high-sugar diet, starting in infancy. Sadly, these children are at a significantly increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease unless their diet is changed.  

Sugar — A Driving Force Behind the Leading Causes of Death

In the video above, investigative journalist and author, Gary Taubes, discusses how the sugar industry has manipulated information and perpetrated a fraud on the public across the world. At the start of his book, "The Case Against Sugar," he makes the comparison between the sparse number of individuals who were diagnosed with diabetes in the late 1800s when sugar was not a staple in the diet, and the rate of 1 in 3 individuals who suffer from diabetes and prediabetes today.

The sugar added to one 6-ounce soda is enough to increase your risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease if you drink it every day.8 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates the average American gets 16 percent of their daily calories from sugar,9 or as much as 30 teaspoons a day, which is three times the recommended amount.10 This is equal to eating 35 5-pound bags of sugar every year.

Manufacturers have used the addictive property of sugar to drive sales of their products, and the use of high-fructose corn syrup to get more bang for their buck. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is not only cheaper for manufacturers to use, it also gives your body a bigger sugar jolt. Dr. Yulia Johnson, family medicine physician with the Iowa Clinic, comments on the use of HFCS:11

"Your body processes high fructose corn syrup differently than it does ordinary sugar. The burden falls on your liver, which is not capable of keeping up with how quickly corn syrup breaks down. As a result, blood sugar spikes quicker. It's stored as fat, so you can become obese and develop other health problems, such as diabetes, much faster.”

The danger to growing children is even greater as their bodies cannot handle the amount of sugar they get from candy, processed foods and sugary drinks, and they have many more years of sugar consumption during which they damage their mitochondria and cellular metabolism — damage that has been linked to many of the leading causes of death, including:12

Heart disease

Hypertension

Atherosclerosis

Cancer

Stroke

Diabetes

Chronic liver disease

Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease13

Sugar Associated With an Increased Risk of Depression

Sugar is also associated with an increased risk of depression. It stands to reason that as sugar adversely affects your brain, it may trigger damage that affects your mood and behavior. Several studies have found an association between rising sugar intake and an increase in depression rates.14,15,16

There are several ways sugar contributes to mood changes. For starters, sugar increases insulin resistance, which plays a significant role in your mental health. Over the long term, this creates a chronic inflammatory response in your body. In one cross-cultural analysis,17 the researchers concluded the dietary predictors of outcome for depression and schizophrenia are very similar to those that predict diabetes and heart disease. They all involve a chronic inflammatory response, of which sugar is a primary driver.

Researchers have also found a significant association between addiction and mood disorders, including depression. In a study18 that tracked the dietary habits and medical conditions of 8,000 people over 22 years, researchers found that men who consumed 67 grams or more of sugar per day were 23 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression in five years than those consuming 40 grams or less.19 None of the participants had been treated for mental illness at the start of the study.

The effect of sugar on mental health appeared to be independent of socioeconomic status, physical activity, drinking, smoking or other eating habits. The findings from this study are noteworthy. Although the methodology didn't allow researchers to find cause and effect, the results line up well with previous studies that suggest over-consumption of sugar may trigger an imbalance in neurological chemicals that affect your mood, raising your risk for depression and anxiety.

Sugar impacts the function of dopamine in your brain, the neurotransmitter that triggers your reward system, in the same way narcotics affect your brain, and may trigger a strong addictive response. Since addiction and mood disorders have been linked, and sugar fuels powerful mood changes associated with addiction, researchers who have analyzed the biochemical and neurological effects of sugar concluded it may be as addictive as cocaine for some people.20

Excessive Sugar Is Toxic

In the video above, Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California in San Francisco (USCF), discusses the role of sugar in society's diet over past decades and how it can poison your body. Sugar stimulates the release of dopamine,21 a neurotransmitter that plays a role in many important pathways, most notably the mesolimbic pathway.

The way dopamine affects your brain in this area changes with addiction and spikes your perception of motivation or pleasure.22 These chemicals are what makes sugar feel so good to you, and why manufacturers use it to drive your behavior. But, just like other addictive drugs, sugar is not healthy for you. Lacking any nutritional value, added sugar is one of the most toxic ingredients in a Western diet.

Processed fructose such as HFCS is another form of added sugar in processed foods that has demonstrated greater damage than simple glucose or table sugar, which is a mixture of glucose and fructose. A study led by Kimber Stanhope, Ph.D., research nutritional biologist from the University of California Davis, demonstrated that fructose does not act like glucose in your body.23

Individuals were randomized to consume drinks sweetened with glucose or fructose over a 10-week period. Even though the drinks contained the same number of calories, the fructose group experienced an increase in lipids associated with cardiovascular disease, increased resistance to insulin and greater visceral fat associated with metabolic disease.

The glucose group did not experience these adverse changes. According to the authors, “These data suggest that dietary fructose specifically increases DNL [hepatic de novo lipogenesis], promotes dyslipidemia, decreases insulin sensitivity, and increases visceral adiposity in overweight/obese adults.”

Sugar Addiction Has Been Manipulated by the Industry

There are a significant number of studies detailing the damage sugar causes your body that spans many decades. The cost of consumption drives up insurance rates and number of hospitalizations, and is linked to eight of the leading causes of death. However, unlike tobacco products that are sold with severe cancer and respiratory warnings, the sugar industry and processed food manufacturers are free to use sugar to feed the consumer's addiction without any warning whatsoever.

Long before a conflict of interest statement was required on research studies, the sugar industry sponsored research that promoted dietary fat as the culprit behind cardiovascular disease and weight gain.24 However, there was evidence that sugar was linked to heart disease in studies dating to the 1950s. Following the deaths of organic chemist Roger Adams, University of Illinois, and nutritionist David Mark Hegsted, Harvard University, their personal correspondence and materials were gifted to their respective universities.

It was in this correspondence that Cristin Kearns, postdoctoral researcher at USCF, discovered references to research conclusions that were influenced by the sugar industry in an effort to hide the damaging effects sugar has on health.25 Historical analysis has provided proof the sugar industry has guided nutritional research, impacting public policy and shifting the blame for chronic disease to saturated fat.

Recent reports show the food industry is still influencing nutritional science.26 In the end, the combination of flawed science, poor governmental oversight and the natural effects sugar has on your brain has led many into an addictive relationship with a substance that is fueling heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

As Health Insurance Rates Rise, Your Best Insurance May Be to Avoid Sugar

Research from many of the most respected institutions around the world confirms sugar is a primary factor driving the development of chronic diseases and contributes to the leading causes of death,27 including cancer and heart disease. It stands to reason, if you want to reduce your health care costs, it is best to avoid sugar as much as possible, if not eliminate it from your diet completely.

While eating whole, organic foods is the best thing you can do for your health, when you do pick up packaged foods, read the labels carefully so you can make an informed decision about the amount of sugar you are adding to your diet. Keep in mind there are many different types of sugars that may go unnoticed on labels. Below is a list of some of the more common sugars, but there are more names for sugar than are listed here.

Also, remember food labels list ingredients in order of the amount in the product. In other words, there is more of the first ingredient in the product than the second, and so forth. When looking at the amount of sugar in the product you're considering, remember if sugar is in the fourth, sixth, ninth and 11th positions, the combined total may well put it in the first or second position. You'll notice that some of these names end with "syrup" or "ose," which identifies them as sugars.28

Fruit juice concentrate

Evaporated cane juice

Cane juice crystals

Blackstrap molasses

Buttered syrup

Fruit juice

Honey

Carob syrup

Caramel

Brown rice syrup

Corn syrup solids

Florida crystal

Golden syrup

Maple syrup

Molasses

Refiner’s syrup

Sorghum syrup

Sucanat

Treacle

Turbinado

Barley malt

Corn syrup

Dextrin

Dextrose

Diastatic malt

Ethyl maltol

Glucose

Glucose solids

Lactose

Malt syrup

Maltose

D-ribose

Rice syrup

Galactose

Maltodextrin

Castor

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