You’ve finally kicked the ice-cream-after-dinner habit. There’s no way you’re eating too much sugar. Right? While nixing obvious sugar bombs like candy and cake is a huge step toward a healthier diet, there are lots of other places sugar hides. That includes everything from high fructose corn syrup found in some salad dressings to fruit juice added to “all natural” protein bars.
In fact, a 2016 study found that ultra-processed foods—foods with added flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives—made up nearly 60 percent of the average American’s calorie intake. Ultra-processed foods were five-fold higher in sugar than unprocessed and processed foods, contributing to nearly 90 percent of our sugar intake. Clearly, all of us need to be looking a bit closer at our labels. But before we get to the common signs of consuming too much sugar, let’s delve into what sugar exactly is and how it affects your body.
What Is Sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate in its simplest form, which your body breaks down into glucose—your body’s preferred form of energy. Natural sugar is found in whole, natural foods like apples; processed sugar is one that’s been tinkered with, like white cane sugar or honey; and added sugar is a natural or processed sugar that’s been dumped into packaged foods like cookies or granola, explains Karen Ansel, R.D., author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging.
While your body can’t tell the difference between these types of sugars, that doesn’t mean they all get treated the same way. Simple sugar alone moves to your bloodstream quickly, causing your body to spike the production of insulin to transfer glucose into your cells. “We’re finding out more all the time about the negative health effects of too much insulin in our bloodstreams,” says Ansel. Complex carbs like whole wheat, on the other hand, are made from long chains of glucose that take your body longer to break down, which gives you more sustained energy and helps you to avoid blood sugar and insulin spikes.
Another difference is in the dosing. “You don’t find foods in nature that have the insane amounts of added sugar found in processed foods. Putting that much sugar into your system is unnatural, and your body isn’t built to digest it,” says Ansel.
The Risks of Too Much Sugar
When you cut your finger and it gets red and swollen, that’s your body’s normal and healthy inflammatory response to repair itself. Chronic inflammation, however, isn’t healthy—and it’s believed to be influenced by what you eat. Some preliminary research has suggested that a high-sugar diet raises your blood sugar, increasing free radicals and compounds that boost inflammation. Over time, too much sugar ups your risk of obesity, increasing your risk of diabetes, and may even on its own increase your risk of conditions like certain cancers and chronic illnesses like heart disease, says Brigitte Zeitlin, R.D.
Some research also suggests that sugar might decrease the diversity of healthy bacteria in your gut within as little as a week, making your digestive system sluggish. “Too much white sugar won’t help you if you’re trying to promote healthy bacteria in your system,” adds Zeitlin. Foods naturally high in fiber have a positive impact—and people eating lots of sugar generally aren’t eating a lot of fiber, agrees Ansel.
So how do you know you’re eating too much sugar? Here are 15 signs—and what to do if you think you are overdosing on the sweet stuff.
You’re Breaking Out Around Your Mouth and Chin
While experts say that severe acne has nothing to do with diet for the vast majority of people, some studies have linked breakouts to eating too many sugary foods. In theory, says Ansel, sugar increases the production of hormones—particularly androgens—that are linked to inflammatory hormonal acne, which usually appears around the jawline and the mouth, says Bruce Robinson, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
“If you’re struggling with breakouts and don’t know why, it can be helpful to cut out added sugars in your diet,” says Ansel.
You’re Super Moody
Some studies have linked sugars to mood disorders like depression. In addition to blood sugar swings, sugar can mess with the neurotransmitters in your brain that regulate your moods. Sugar, in particular, causes a spike in the feel-good hormone serotonin. “Because we know carbs affect neurotransmitters, it only follows that when you upset your carb balance by having so many entering your body at an unnatural rate it might make you feel better at first. But what goes up comes down, and they may make you feel worse in the long run,” says Ansel. Result: You feel cranky and tired.
Zeitlin says the best way to stabilize your blood sugar and mood is to eat more foods that take longer to digest, like whole grains, fiber, and protein.
You Can’t Get a Good Night’s Rest
Eating a cookie or cupcake with loads of added sugar too close to bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep—at least in the short-term. “It will give you a boost of energy by spiking your blood sugar, which always makes going to bed harder when you’re trying to wind down,” says Zeitlin. It might have the opposite effect shortly thereafter because sugar triggers the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which makes you feel relaxed and even sleepy, Ansel adds. But even if it is easier to nod off, the sleep you get probably won’t be as satisfying. “You might not wake up feeling as good, because your blood sugar dips during the night,” says Ansel.
A good rule of thumb, says Zeitlin: Stop eating entirely—especially sugary foods—two hours before bedtime, so you don’t get indigestion and sugar has time to make its way through your system—and you can relax and get into sleep mode.
Your Skin Is Prematurely Wrinkled
A high-sugar diet has been shown to speed up skin aging. That’s because too much dietary sugar reacts with proteins in your bloodstream and forms advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), damaging the structural proteins in skin collagen and elastin that make your supple and bouncy. “A high sugar diet can definitely make your skin wrinkle faster, making you look older. Limiting sugar can make difference,” says Ansel.
You Keep Getting Cavities
This one’s a no-brainer, but sugar is a major cause behind tooth decay, according to the American Dental Association. When sugar sits on your teeth, it feeds plaque bacteria that are already naturally there, producing acids that wear away at your tooth enamel (the hard surface of your teeth), which leads to cavities. “The worst is a combo of sugar and acid, which you get from sports drink or soda, since both destroy tooth enamel,” says Ansel. “People who drink lots of these drinks tend to have lots more dental problems.”
Solution: Swap the soda for sparkling or mineral water infused with your favorite fruit and/or herbs, like watermelon and basil or blackberries and mint.
You Crave Dessert After Every Dinner
The more sugar you eat, the more likely you are to crave it. “Sugar boosts feel-good hormones. Because your brain feels good, it will want that high again,” says Zeitlin. “You’re also having peaks and dips in your blood sugar, which leads you to want to eat more.”
An after-dinner sugar habit can be one of the toughest diet pitfalls to kick. “Habits can be as powerful as hunger in steering food choices. After a meal, you should technically feel full, but if you’re in the habit of treating yourself to dessert every night your body becomes conditioned to want it,” says Ansel. If this is the case for you, a lot of people find it easier to avoid sugar altogether than having less of it, she says.
You’re Constantly Hungry
“If sugar doesn’t have fiber or protein with it, it won’t fill you up,” says Zeitlin. That’s because sugar causes your blood sugar to spike and quickly dip, so you to feel hungrier and crave more sugar to bounce back. “If you eat the bread basket before your meal, it will make you feel full initially, but by the time dinner rolls around you’ll feel hungrier,” she says.
Instead, pass on the rolls and wait to fill up first on a salad or serving of salmon, chicken, or lean steak. Foods with fiber, healthy fats and lean protein fill you up, so you have a better grasp on whether or not you really want that slice of bread.
You Have Joint Pain
Some research has linked regularly having sugary drinks to rheumatoid arthritis in women, possibly due to inflammation. Other research found that people who have five or more sweetened beverages a week—including fruit juice—are more likely to have arthritis. Ansel notes that these studies only found an association, which doesn’t necessarily mean that sugar directly causes arthritis.
It’s Impossible to Lose Weight
While sugar in and of itself doesn’t necessarily in and of itself make the pounds pile on, it can keep you from losing them or maintaining a healthy weight. Weight gain, of course, happens when you eat too much of anything. “But the amount of research linked to sugar and weight gain is undeniable,” says Zeitlin. Food with loads of white sugar, like a Danish or cupcake, make you feel less satisfied, so you’re more likely to eat more calories per meal.
On the other hand, complex carbs (like whole grains, fruits, and veggies), healthy fats (like nuts and seeds), and lean protein (like fish and chicken) take your system longer to digest, keeping your blood sugar levels stable and you feeling fuller faster and for longer. “If you have a candy bar at 4 p.m., you’ll feel full for short while, but in a couple of hours you’ll feel hungrier than if you had an apple,” says Ansel.
Your Brain Feels Foggy
Your whole body—including your brain—uses carbs, including sugar, as its main fuel source. So when blood sugar drops after a high-sugar meal, that can result in brain fog. “When your blood sugar drops, your energy is dropping, so your ability to stay focused and alert can drop too,” says Zeitlin. Swapping the cookie for an apple with a tablespoon of natural peanut butter will give you sustained energy to face down a 3 p.m. slump.
Fruit Just Isn’t Sweet Enough
Eating sugar too frequently—including adding sugar or even sugar substitutes like Splenda to certain foods—can alter what your taste buds interpret as sweet. “A bowl of strawberries is sweet on its own, but if you sprinkle sugar or Stevia on it, your baseline for sweet is so much higher than the fruit on its own,” says Zeitlin. “It changes your expectation of how a dessert should taste.” Cutting out added sugars and fake sweeteners as often as possible helps reteach your body to enjoy the natural sweetness of fruit.
You’re Constantly Bloated
Salty foods are known for causing bloat, but foods high in sugar can also cause your tummy to bulge and become what’s called a “soda belly.” But once you take control of your sweet cravings, you can kiss the bloat goodbye. It’s also important to note that if you have a sensitivity to sugars such as fructose (sugar in fruit) and lactose (in dairy), your belly might experience bloating and other common IBS symptoms.
You Don’t Feel as Strong
Research in the Zero Sugar Diet found a link between refined sugar and age-related muscle loss due to sugar inhibiting the body’s ability to synthesize protein into muscle. Once you start to curb your sweet cravings and limit your consumption of sugar, you’ll start to see a difference in your workouts and feel stronger.
Your Blood Pressure Rises Slightly
Sugar is worse for your blood pressure than salt, according to a study in the journal Open Heart. Just a few weeks on a high-sucrose diet can increase both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Another study found that for every sugar-sweetened beverage, the risk of developing hypertension increased eight percent.
You’ve Lost Motivation to Work Out—Ever
Consuming too much added sugars can make you gain weight in many ways, but the weirdest way is that it can reduce actual physical activity. In one study at the University of Illinois, mice that were fed a diet that mimicked the standard American diet–i.e., one that was about 18 percent added sugars—gained more body fat even though they weren’t fed more calories. One of the reasons was that the mice traveled about 20 percent less in their little cages than mice that weren’t fed the sugary diet.
How Much Sugar Should You Eat Per Day?
The FDA says that no more than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from added sugars—that adds up to 38 grams (10 teaspoons) for women on a 1,500-calorie diet, or 51 grams (13 teaspoons) for men on a 2,000-calorie diet. Both the American Heart Association and World Health Organization are more conservative, recommending about 25 grams (6 teaspoons) per day of added sugar for women and 36 grams (9 teaspoons) per day for men.
Processed foods, in particular, can get sneaky: Even though apple juice might be made from a natural sugar, it can still saddle a food with way too much overall sugar. An açai bowl or smoothie, for example, can overdo it with a too much fruit—which essentially becomes added sugar. “Just because a label says ‘no added sugar,’ you still want to read the label and see how many grams of sugar there are in that item per serving,” says Zeitlin.
When it comes to the natural sugars found in a whole sweet potato or an apple, “most of us don’t come even close to overdoing it,” says Zeitlin. Experts aren’t worried about the sugar content because you’re getting so many other benefits, like vitamins and fiber to slow down and how your body absorbs and uses sugar. As a general guideline, she suggests limiting yourself to about two cups of whole fruit a day.