We all know to go easy on the sweet stuff, but what actually happens to your system when you indulge? Here, eight ways sugar affects your body.
Your brain suffers
Fructose—the sugar that naturally occurs in fruit and is a component, with glucose, of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and table sugar—lights up the brain’s reward center, says pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig, MD, of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. But over time, a diet packed with fructose (especially from HFCS) can make it tougher to learn and remember, animal research suggests. To stay in peak mental shape, try sticking with savory snacks.
You want to eat more
By revving the brain’s reward and appetite center, fructose can interfere with feelings of satiety, research reveals. Translation: That extra cookie may not curb your craving after all.
Skin ages faster
Too much sugar can hinder the repair of collagen, the buzzed-about protein that keeps skin looking plump, studies show. A steady diet of sugary treats can result in reduced elasticity and premature wrinkles. Indulge your sweet tooth with fruit instead. Experts say it’s A-OK to eat two to four servings of the natural sugar source each day.
Excess sugar is stored as fat
Pause before you slip that additional packet into your a.m. coffee. The liver has an innate capacity to metabolize sugar and use it for energy—but only to an extent, explains Dr. Lustig. The fructose that’s left over is converted into fat in the liver, raising your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Your cells pay a steep price
Fructose accelerates the usual oxidation process in our cells, says Dr. Lustig. The result? Proteins, tissues, and organs can become damaged, and our risk of health conditions, including liver disease, kidney failure, and cataracts, rises.
You get hooked
Eating sugar leads to the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes us like something and want more of it. “As dopamine receptor neurons get overstimulated, the number of receptors to bind to decreases, so you’ll need a bigger hit of dopamine to get the same rush,” explains Dr. Lustig.
Stress eating begets stress
Sweets can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the near term, research shows. But continue OD’ing on sugary refined carbs and your risk of insulin resistance, which stresses the body from the inside, goes up. To find your calm, sweat instead: “Exercise is the best treatment for stress. It makes you feel good and reduces cortisol,” says Dr. Lustig.
Energy surges, then bottoms out
Refined carbs, like those in white bread and pasta, quickly cause a rise in glucose in the bloodstream, so you might feel extra energized—for a while. But this short-term fix can actually leave you more sluggish later on (when you eventually crash). Instead, opt for protein-rich snacks between meals, such as Greek yogurt with fresh berries or fresh veggies and hummus. They help stabilize blood sugar and keep you going longer.