Not So Sweet: Sugar's Effects On Your Body

Sugar doesn't just make you fat. It's far worse than that.

Added sugar is actually toxic to your body, scientists have discovered. When you eat or drink sugary stuff, you set off chemical changes in your body that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, even cancer—and even if you're thin.

Sugar wreaks havoc on your body

Before you guzzle that soda or eat that cookie, consider what it will do to your body:

--Inhibits weight loss. Just two teaspoons of refined sugar can inhibit your weight loss for three to four days. It will also cut your T-cell count (the white blood cells instrumental in keeping your immune system strong and functioning) by 50% for two full hours after eating, leaving you more vulnerable to infection and illness. 

--It will likely go straight to your fat cells, especially if you drink your sugar in liquid form (soda or juice). This dumps a ton of sugar into your liver all at once, which forces the liver to convert it quickly to fat.

Some of this fat—well, it makes you fat. Some of it runs around in your bloodstream; it's the type that clogs your arteries, leading to high blood pressure and heart disease. Some of it sticks to your liver ("fatty liver").

--You can get metabolic syndrome—a sign of deadly diseases to come. If you have a heart attack, "metabolic syndrome will very likely be the reason," investigative reporter Gary Taubes explains in an article for The New York Times Magazine titled "Is Sugar Toxic? "

Metabolic syndrome "is a major, if not the major, risk factor for heart disease and diabetes," Taubes writes. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimate that some 75 million Americans have metabolic syndrome." The first symptom of metabolic syndrome? "An expanding waistline." Another dead giveaway? Fatty liver.

Here's what research shows: Dump a lot of sugar into your bloodstream, and your body cranks out a ton of insulin to compensate. But after a while, your cells start ignoring this insulin overload. Your pancreas thinks it just needs to throw more insulin at the problem—but this creates more problems. You'll get high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and low "good" cholesterol, all precursors to heart disease. This is what doctors call metabolic syndrome.

In controlled studies where healthy people go really sugar-crazy, these problems show up within days or weeks.

Eventually, your pancreas could just conk out from exhaustion. Now, you've got diabetes. Or, it could keep flooding your body with insulin—which studies show actually promotes the growth of cancerous tumors.

Sugar is so toxic to your body that researchers at the University of California, San Francisco argue that it should be controlled like alcohol, in a recent article in the journal Nature titled "Public Health: The Toxic Truth About Sugar."

--Sugar is addictive. The instant sugar hits your tongue, it fires up your brain's pleasure center—very much the way cocaine does. Unfortunately, you build up a tolerance to sugar, just like drugs. The more sugar you consume, the more it takes to trigger that pleasure center. The more you eat, the more you crave.

--All added sugars are equally bad. Table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, even honey, and maple syrup—it doesn't matter. All are loaded with fructose. All harm your body in exactly the same way.

--Added sugars are everywhere. Bread, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, yogurt, ketchup—pick up any box, bag, or jar at the grocery store, and you'll probably find some sort of sugar in the ingredient list. The average American winds up eating 130 pounds of added sugars in a year, 60 Minutes reports.

That’s why I recommend avoiding all added sugars. Instead, dive into luscious, ripe fruits to satisfy your sweet tooth—strawberries, watermelon, pineapple, figs, mangoes, and more. They're full of natural sugars, but also lots of fiber. This lets your body absorb the sugars slowly, and it fills you up so you don't eat as much sugar in the first place (you'd have to eat an awful lot of apples to get as much sugar as a can of Coke).

When a recipe calls for sweetener (in homemade lemonade, for example), you can add stevia, xylitol or monk fruit extract, natural sweeteners that release into your bloodstream slowly and gently. This lets your body store them in your muscles for energy—not in your belly as fat.