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While the sweet treats you enjoy throughout the day (some M&Ms here, a pumpkin spice latte there) and your after-dinner dessert (hello, cookies and ice cream!) taste absolutely delicious, sweet tooths everywhere should know that they’re probably packed with added sugar—and that consuming too much food (or drink) with added sugar can pose potential health risks, like unexpected weight gain.
Many people also wonder, “Does sugar cause inflammation?” It’s a great question, and the answer isn’t so simple. We asked experts to help us discuss the side effects of eating too much added sugar (which has historically been studied the most).
Meet the experts: Deena Adimoolam, M.D., a specialist in diabetes and endocrinology; Maria Teresa Anton, M.D., endocrinologist at Pritikin Longevity Center; and Mascha Davis, M.P.H., R.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Eat Your Vitamins; Dana Cohen, M.D., an integrative medical doctor at Dr. Dana Cohen Integrative Functional Holistic Medicine.
Before we dive into the possible relationship between added sugar and chronic inflammation, it’s important to understand what inflammation means—as well as the difference between natural and added sugar.
What is chronic inflammation, and what’s the difference between natural and added sugar?
Inflammation is the body’s immune system defending against foreign substances, such as viruses and bacteria. Acute inflammation occurs quickly and is caused by tissue damage, while chronic inflammation is slow, long-term, and can be caused by genetic predispositions, diet, and stress. The Cleveland Clinic says chronic inflammation can cause abdominal pain, fatigue, joint stiffness, fever, skin rash, or chest pain.
“Inflammation is a crucial part of your body’s healing process.” says Dana Cohen, M.D., an integrative medical doctor at Dr. Dana Cohen Integrative Functional Holistic Medicine. “Your body sends out inflammatory cells (white blood cells) to attack the unfamiliar matter or mend the damaged tissue. If these inflammatory cells stay too long, it may lead to chronic inflammation which has been described as a fire (in-flame) going out of control.”
Now, on to sugar. Natural sugars can be found in fruit (fructose) and dairy (lactose). Dr. Cohen says that too much added sugar, which is when sugar or caloric sweeteners are manually included when the food or drink is processed, can affect your health. Most major studies done on the relationship between inflammation and sugar are specifically about added sugar, which is what we will focus on for the purpose of this story. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists brown sugar, corn syrup, cane sugar, fructose, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, and sucrose as common added sugars.
Read on for the details on the correlation between added sugar and inflammation.
Does added sugar cause inflammation?
There needs to be more research to definitively state the relationship between sugar and chronic inflammation, but Deena Adimoolam, M.D., a specialist in diabetes and endocrinology, says there is data suggesting overconsumption of added sugars can increase inflammation. “The cause for this is unclear, but it may be related to how these added sugars are metabolized,” Dr. Adimoolam says. “Many foods with added sugars also have added ingredients like preservatives, food colorings, etc. which may also increase inflammation.”
Some research has shown that a diet high in refined sugars is associated with a higher production of pro-inflammatory molecules. “Excessive consumption of added sugars may cause inflammation in the body by promoting insulin resistance, fat storage, elevated triglycerides, changes in gut microbiota, and the formation of pro-inflammatory compounds,” says Mascha Davis, M.P.H., R.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Eat Your Vitamins. “This can all contribute to chronic inflammation.”
Maria Teresa Anton, M.D., endocrinologist at Pritikin Longevity Center, also says the overconsumption of added sugar can cause an increase in the production of inflammatory markers in the body, which are indicators in blood tests used to detect inflammation caused by diseases or conditions. One study found that people with a high-sugar diet tend to have higher levels of C-reactive protein in their blood, which is a type of inflammatory marker.
Further research is needed to fully understand added sugar’s relationship with inflammation, but current studies suggest that eating or drinking too much added sugar is not advisable. “It is still unclear whether different kinds of sugar like fructose, sucrose, glucose, or high fructose corn syrup contribute to inflammation, but it is clear that added sugars in general can lead to obesity and promote inflammation that leads to cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure,” Dr. Cohen says.
Do natural sugars cause inflammation?
Again, much of the research available focuses on added sugar. Added sugar and natural sugar both cause blood sugar spikes (which can lead to inflammation), but it is much easier to overconsume the former than the latter. Foods with natural sugars (such as fruit and milk), have a much lower percentage of sugar than foods like donuts, cookies, and soda. Plus, natural sugar is typically found in anti-inflammatory foods, such as berries and oranges.
The American Heart Association (AHA) says added sugar is absorbed faster than natural sugar because our body digests the nutrients in fruit or milk slowly. The AHA recommends men eat no more than 36 grams of added sugar a day and women have a maximum of 25 grams.
Other foods that cause inflammation
Cookies, ice cream, donuts, and sweet snacks are not the only offenders when it comes to inflammation. Dr. Anton says red meats, refined carbohydrates, and fried foods, have been linked to causing inflammation too. Along with those food choices, Dr. Cohen also says full fat dairy products, excess omega-6 fatty acids (which can be found in corn oil, sunflower oil, and vegetable oil) can cause inflammation.
Chronic inflammation may occur when you’re eating too much of one or more of these foods, so this doesn’t mean you have to cut out hamburgers and french fries completely. “Inflammation is rarely caused by one food alone, but excess consumption of fried, processed and packaged items that contain high amounts of additives (as well as salt and sugar), may increase risk of chronic inflammation,” Davis says.
While selecting healthy options to put on your plate is helpful, it’s important to remember that drinks can cause inflammation too. Research shows that excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to systemic inflammation because it impairs the gut and liver’s defenses against bacteria.
Dr. Cohen advises against focusing on specific foods to avoid, and instead suggests looking at your overall diet. “If someone is eating mostly a whole food diet, some red meat and dairy is okay,” she says. “In addition, some people can get inflammation from nightshade veggies like eggplant and tomatoes.”
What other effects does added sugar have on the body?
The negative effects of eating or drinking an excessive amount of food and drinks with added sugar are not limited to just your physical health. “Some of the immediate effects of consuming too much sugar include fatigue, irritability, and/or depression,” Dr. Anton says. One study found that consuming added sugars increases the risk of mood disorders in men, and another study found sugar intake increases the need to sleep and lowered energy levels.
“The liver converts sugar to fat,” Dr. Cohen says. “And when the liver becomes overloaded with added sugar, this can lead to an accumulation of fat which can result in fatty liver disease (a potential contributor to type 2 diabetes) and heart disease.”
Luckily for those with a sweet tooth, it’s not all bad. Glucose is a type of sugar that is necessary for our survival and it’s made from eating carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Consider the healthy amount of sugar you should eat in a day to help avoid any negative effects.
How can I reduce inflammation?
Before you consider anything drastic, like a no-sugar diet, there are other lifestyle and diet changes you can make first to safely lower your sugar consumption. Obesity can be linked to chronic inflammation in fat tissue, so Dr. Cohen suggests following a Mediterranean diet, getting regular exercise, and sleeping well to help reduce stress and maintain a healthy weight.
Davis recommends prioritizing balance and moderation in your diet, rather than stressing about eating no sugar. “One approach is to be aware of sneaky sources of added sugars and make substitutions,” she says. “For instance, the popular Starbucks PSL contains 38 grams of sugar (equivalent to roughly 3 tablespoons, which exceeds the recommended DAILY limit of added sugar for most people). Opting for a lower sugar alternative like Califia Farms Pumpkin Spiced Latte provides a similar delicious taste with less than half the sugar.”
Dr. Adimoolam suggests focusing on weight loss as needed, reducing stress, improving sleep habits, including exercise in your routine, and limiting added sugars to less than 10% of your total daily calories. She also says to eat more beans, fruits, nuts, and cook with extra virgin olive oil for antioxidant benefits.
Dr. Anton and Davis also recommend making lifestyle changes and following a holistic approach to reduce and prevent inflammation, such as exercising regularly and limiting stress. “Addressing inflammation requires a holistic approach that involves focusing on all aspects of health, including nutrition, sleep, physical activity, and mental well-being,” Davis says. “It is recommended to aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise each week and to integrate stress management tools like meditation, journaling, or yoga to help prevent and lower inflammation in the body.”
If you are experiencing chronic inflammation, it is always best to speak with your medical doctor to determine the root of the problems. “Doctors can test for inflammation through blood markers, such as CRP, a protein produced by the liver when the body experiences inflammation,” Davis says.
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